Rise in medicinal cannabis clinics with dedicated GPs caters to exponential growth in legal drug use

The emergence of upmarket medicinal cannabis clinics has some health professionals concerned that the growing trend of one-stop shops could be targeting the vulnerable while operators say they are improving patient access.

Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) figures show that more than a million Australians have accessed medicinal cannabis since 2016 when the drug was legalised, with the vast majority of the uptake in the past 18 months.

To cater for the booming billion-dollar market, various clinics that offer both prescription and dispensing services under the one roof have been popping up.

Those found on the Gold Coast often resemble sleek day spas and are positioned in tourist hotspots.

Pharmacist Kishan Patel, who co-owns clinics in Coolangatta and Robina with another opening in Logan in January, said the contrast to the once hippy vibe of cannabis was a deliberate choice.

five exployees mingle in a medicinal cannabis clinic

Kishan Patel is opening new medicinal cannabis clinics to cater for demand.(ABC News: Steve Keen)

“The idea is to create a welcoming environment. We’re not trying to be in a dark alley or in a corner somewhere. We want to be proud front and centre,” he said.

Mr Patel said his clinics offered patients the opportunity to visit an onsite GP to see whether they qualified for medicinal cannabis use.

The business-model approach to healthcare has attracted the attention of The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), which has concerns about the recent explosion in the number of online and shopfront clinics that focus solely on providing medicinal cannabis to patients, as opposed to holistic care.

RACGP President Nicole Higgins said there was limited clinical evidence on the effectiveness of medicinal cannabis, except for a few instances such as palliative care and epilepsy.

“The problem with what’s happening now, with these multiple shops that are popping up everywhere, they’re really marketing to our vulnerable people,” Dr Higgins said.

“For mental health issues such as anxiety or ADHD, cannabis still hasn’t had evidence or proof that it makes a difference, so we need to be very, very careful that we’re not causing harm as well.

“It’s pitched to people as the answer for everything, [but] we know that the evidence says that it’s not.”

Growing a patient base

Mr Patel admitted that while there were problems within the rapidly expanding industry, his company was determined to reduce the stigma around the drug.

“It’s like any industry, there’s good and bad and we feel we’re carving out a whole different way of doing things,” he said.

He said that many of his customers were black market cannabis users who were switching over to a legal supply.

Close of a man with short dark hair and beard in a white tshirt

Pharmacist Kishan Patel says he became aware of the power of medicinal cannabis while working in a children’s hospital.(ABC News: Steve Keen)

His other patients were what he referred to as “cannabis naive”; that is they had either never tried cannabis before or weren’t aware it could treat the symptoms they might be experiencing.

Mr Patel said his company was looking to grow its “cannabis naive” patient base.

“Our whole premise of being here is to help patients. They’re the centre of everything we’re doing,” he said.

Costly prescriptions

Dr Higgins said that the cost of the drug could make it inaccessible to many.

“One of the things about cannabis is it’s incredibly expensive, when there are so many other better options that are available that are much more accessible and cheaper,” she said.

Currently, the price of prescription cannabis in its dried herb form was on-par with the black market.

Prescription cannabis sells for about $135 to $150 per 10 grams, while Queensland police lists the street value of black market cannabis at $121 per 10g.

A woman with organe classes and black blazer looks at the camera, sitting next to a computer.

RACGP president Dr Nicole Higgins says too many people think cannabis is natural and therefore safe.(ABC News: Hannah Walsh)

Playing catch up with advertising

Dr Higgins said regulators have been caught on the back foot as some medicinal cannabis companies try to circumvent Australia’s strict laws that prohibit the advertising of prescription drugs.

“The regulators are playing catch up,” she said.

“There has been heavy marketing through social media channels, for example, TikTok,” she said.

Last financial year, the TGA issued more than 100 infringement notices totalling nearly $1.3 million for alleged unlawful advertising of medicinal cannabis.

In a statement, the TGA said since July last year it had received 460 complaints from the public relating to advertising.

Mr Patel said his company hadn’t received complaints from regulators and that he obtained legal advice to ensure any pamphlets or videos made by his business were compliant.

“We’ve learned a lot from day one,” he said.

“A lot of that is making sure we know where the rules are. The TGA are there to protect the community, the patients and we advocate for that.”

Working while using prescription cannabis

Mr Patel, who plans to expand his number of shopfronts, says the most common question from customers is about cannabis use and work.

“It’s a medicinal product, you have a GP writing a prescription and we can give you a copy of the prescription [for work],” he said.

“So for all intents and purposes, it is a medicinal product and you have every right to consume that.

“Whether that affects your ability to do your job, obviously, that’s the question at hand so check with your employer.”

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