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Spotlight on the world of illicit medical cannabis use

Researchers have shone light on the medical reasons for illicit cannabis use among Australians.

The team from the University of Sydney's Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics surveyed around 1700 individuals in a 12-month period who self-reported cannabis use for therapeutic reasons.

Treating back pain, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, arthritis and post-traumatic stress disorder were among the common reasons given for illicit cannabis use.

Study co-author Professor Iain McGregor said only about 1000 people are accessing legally prescribed cannabis-based medicines through approved systems, but he added there may be up to 100,000 or more Australians self-medicating with illicit cannabis for therapeutic purposes.

While participants reported that their cannabis use had been effective in helping them manage their health conditions, they also reported a range of side effects. These included increased appetite, drowsiness, eye irritation, lethargy and memory impairment.

Noting that recent reviews indicated certain cannabis products are effective for some patients with pain, sleep problems, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and spasticity in multiple sclerosis, lead author Professor Nicholas Lintzeris added clinical trial-based evidence is still emerging for many of the conditions for which medical cannabis was used for in his study, such as anxiety, depression or PTSD.

While most people were smoking their cannabis either through bongs (42 per cent) or joints (20 per cent), the majority indicated they would prefer using safer options.

Most respondents expressed a strong preference for medical cannabis to be integrated into mainstream healthcare, and for products to meet quality and safety standards.

Survey respondents also reported concerns about the illegal status of their cannabis use. Worries surrounded employment, irregular access and the highly variable quality of cannabis accessed illegally.

Published in the Medical Journal of Australia, the study was conducted immediately before the implementation of new regulations in October 2016, and the researchers said it represents a “before snapshot” of medical cannabis use in Australia.

The research team will be repeating the online survey in coming weeks to look at how patterns of use have changed since the new regulations have taken effect.

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