Cannabis is the COVID-19 drug of choice in Australia after alcohol. Self-reported usage rates have soared and medicinal cannabis approvals are at record rates, increasing by almost 40% since telehealth was implemented in April.
Australians are turning to marijuana during the pandemic for prescribed medication, self-medication, and as an alternative to other substances.
Did telehealth cause a cannabis boom?
In July last year the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved 2207 medicinal cannabis applications. By July this year that had shot up to 5564 — a 60% increase.
Between April and July — when telehealth was widely implemented — approvals shot up by 39%. More than 56,000 applications have been approved — 77.6% are to treat chronic pain.
But this growth doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with telehealth, cannabis consultant and industry expert Rhys Cohen told Crikey.
“It’s a real trend that would have happened regardless of other factors,” he said. “There’s always been a lot of pent-up demand for these products and doctors are becoming more and more educated about their use.”
A doctor needs approval from the TGA to prescribe cannabis. Patients often have to be reapproved every three to six months so approval rates grow exponentially.
Unlike other drugs, Australia’s medicinal cannabis supply chain has been largely unaffected by the pandemic. Most is imported from Canada and the European Union.
“There’s been an increase in available clinics and prices have continued to decline over the years,” Cohen said.
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Cannabis as the cure?
For those who haven’t been prescribed cannabis, it’s still being used as a potential cure for ailments (and boredom).
One study found that since March 57% of survey respondents reported an increase in their cannabis use. It is the second-most commonly used drug after alcohol since COVID-19 restrictions were implemented and is the most common drug of choice.
One reason for the increase is for self-medication, addiction medicine specialist and Sydney University professor Nick Lintzeris said.
“We’re seeing an increase [in] mental health issues during the pandemic, as well as a reduction of things that help people with chronic pain — physiotherapy rehabilitation groups, exercise and acupuncture as examples,” he said.
There are still significant barriers to accessing medicinal cannabis — there’s even an inquiry into them. Just one in 30 cannabis patients — people who report using cannabis for medicinal purposes — use it legally.
Users are making the switch
Drug users have turned to cannabis and away from party drugs including MDMA and cocaine. Their use has decreased since COVID-19 restrictions were implemented.
“People use drugs for a reason, and they use them for the effect they’re going to produce,” Lintzeris said. “Certain drugs are designed for certain things.”
Drug users moving away from other drugs to cannabis could save Australia a lot of money in the long run: cannabis use costs Australia $4.5 billion a year, and the misuse of opioids costs $15.7 billion a year.
From 2015 to 2016, opioids caused 2200 deaths. Cannabis caused 23 deaths in the same period, most of which were traffic accidents.
Australians’ attitudes towards cannabis have been changing too — more people approve of adults using it for personal use, and 85% approve of its use in medical settings.