“Just because it’s green ... doesn’t mean it can’t do harm”.
That’s the world from Justin Sinclair, one of Australia’s foremost experts in medicinal cannabis, who addressed an education forum for mental health and drug and alcohol nurses in Wollongong this week.
The Sydney pharmacognosist has spent the last decade investigating medicinal cannabis use both in Australia and the US, and had some cautionary advice for health professionals.
“Medicinal cannabis is not a panacea, it’s not a cure-all medicine like it’s sometimes portrayed,” he said, “ and it’s important to highlight that it’s not for everyone.
“For some people it’s a wonderful medicine. In Australia the Therapeutic Goods Association has released guidelines on dosage for chronic pain in adults; for spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, for intractable epilepsy and for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.
“However there can be side affects or risks associated with it like any medication. For some people it can increase their heart rate, it can make them feel quite anxious or dysphoric.
“So I think the most important thing to understand is that just because it’s green, just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s without side effects, doesn’t mean it can’t do harm.”
With prescribed medicinal cannabis now legal in all Australian states and territories though a limited special access scheme, Mr Sinclair said education was key – for health professionals and the public.
“Medicinal cannabis can change the way pharmaceutical medications work which is something health care professionals need to be wary of because it’s very rare to come across a patient who’s not on multiple drugs,” he said.
“Nurses are important front line health workers, so they need to be able to be aware of risks and side effects. And doctors – the only people who can prescribe it – also need education to address any knowledge gaps they may have.
“Once they understand how it works in the body, how it might be beneficial for their patients; and what form of medicinal cannabis to use, at what dose, and what ratio of the different chemicals in the plant to use – then they will feel more comfortable in prescribing it.”
Mr Sinclair, a Research Fellow at the NICM Health Research Institute at Western Sydney university, was among a range of speakers at the forum at the City Diggers on Wednesday.
Organised by the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, the nurses gathered also heard from medicinal cannabis advocate and Katoomba GP Dr Teresa Towpik and Epilepsy Action Australia CEO Carol Ireland.