Australian Government Pledges $3 Million to Medical Cannabis Research
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The Australian Government is investing $3 million AUD ($2.03 million USD) from the country’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) to finance further research into the benefits of medicinal cannabis for cancer patients, the Australian health minister announced on Sunday.
The multi-million-dollar grant will fund research that will investigate the therapeutic potential of medicinal cannabis for treating pain and other cancer symptoms, as well as managing the side effects that come with cancer treatments such as chemotherapy.
Medical cannabis for cancer
Australia’s health minister Greg Hunt made the funding announcement at a fundraising walk organized by the English-born Australian singer Olivia Newton-John, who became an advocate for medical cannabis after she began using cannabis oils to relive the pain caused by her own breast cancer.
“Since her own battle, Ms Olivia Newton-John has been an advocate for breast cancer awareness and research, and through her personal experience and ongoing efforts has helped shine a light on the benefits associated with medicinal cannabis,” he said in a press statement.
“An open and contestable grant opportunity will fund research, that will provide further evidence into an area of increasing interest in Australia and globally.”
Cannabis and cannabinoids have previously been studied for their potential anti-cancer and anti-tumor effects.
A recent 2019 review from researchers in Slovenia found that cannabinoids have the potential to effectively modulate tumor growth, dependent on the type of cancer and the dosage. Another 2017 review from researchers based in Canada found that “there is evidence suggesting that medical cannabis reduces chronic or neuropathic pain in advanced cancer patients.”
“It’s helped me incredibly, with pain, with sleep, with anxiety, particularly when I had to wean myself off morphine,” Newton-John told journalists at the charity run in Melbourne on Sunday.
Cannabis access in Australia
Medical cannabis can be prescribed legally in Australia by a doctor with the necessary state and Commonwealth authority/approvals. Under federal law, recreational cannabis use and the home cultivation of cannabis for any purpose remains strictly prohibited.
In the Australian state of Victoria, patients can also enroll in a medicinal cannabis safety study. Operated by Victoria’s Office for Medicinal Cannabis and in partnership with several Australian universities, the study aims to gather more data about the patients' medications, condition, and progression, in order to better understand the safety of medical cannabis and its efficacy.
“Overall more than 11,000 patients are estimated to have been approved to access medicinal cannabis products – with the majority approved this year,” said Hunt in a ministry statement.
“There have only been a limited number of well-designed clinical studies on medicinal cannabis, and we need to increase the evidence base to support medical professionals to make their decisions,” Hunt continued. “Given the increase in prescribed medicinal cannabis, the Government has supported the nation’s medicinal cannabis industry, and cut red tape, to help meet demand.”
In late-September, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) became the first of Australian jurisdiction to legalize the cultivation and recreational use of cannabis. The policy change came about due to the actions of ACT lawmakers, who voted to pass a bill which will allow residents in the territory to possess up to 50 grams of cannabis and cultivate between 2-4 cannabis plants per household once the bill takes effect on January 31, 2020.
ACT Attorney General Gordon Ramsay has said that the legalization move in the ACT will not entirely remove the risk of federal prosecution but that the laws would not apply “in practice.” ACT shadow Attorney General Jeremy Hanson expressed concern that the “unclear legal framework” could be confusing to police.
Where it may be fairly common in the United States for state law to diverge from federal law on this issue, it’s not certain whether the ACT will be permitted to implement its new policy. When a similar conflict arose in 2013 – in which the ACT legalized same-sex marriage while it was still prohibited under the federal Marriage Act – Australia’s highest court ended up striking down the ACT's legislation.