Simplifying the licencing structure and easing the administrative red tape are among the key recommendations of a Commonwealth health department report into the medicinal cannabis scheme by a respected Canberra academic.
The report's author, ANU Emeritus Professor John McMillan, has reviewed the scheme after its first three years of operation.
The report produced 26 recommendations and is scheduled to be tabled in Parliament by Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt in late October.
Administered by the Office of Drug Control within the Department of Health, the scheme was set up in 2016 "to ensure patient availability of a safe, legal and sustainable supply of cannabis-derived products - a 'farm to pharmacy' cannabis supply chain".
The report described the establishment of the scheme as "resoundingly successful" but pointed to a number of issues, not the least of which was the huge amount of frustration experienced by companies attempting to apply and navigate their way through the complex standards, some of which were described as "ambiguous, inexact or inordinately demanding".
Three sets of Commonwealth laws regulate the supply and access to cannabis as a therapeutic medicine, including the Therapeutic Goods Act (1989), the Customs Act (1901) and the Narcotic Drugs Act (1967).
As at June 2019, the department had received 246 licence applications but granted just 63.
This slow administrative approvals process has resulted in poor patient access to an in-demand product with a proven potential to ease pain and suffering.
Submissions made during the consultation phase of the report told of how expectations raised by the scheme's introduction three years ago had "not been fulfilled" and that a case had been well established that medicinal cannabis assisted patients suffering from illnesses such as terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis, epileptic seizures and chemotherapy-induced nausea.
"A relatively small number of patients are receiving prescribed medicinal cannabis, it is mostly imported and it is expensive," the report stated.
"There are also claims that obtaining medicinal cannabis through illicit channels is the easier path for many patients."
Current legislation structures the scheme into three separate licence categories: cultivation and production, research, and manufacture. Permits are required to be issued separately for each licence.
The report has recommended this three-tiered system be streamlined into a single licence structure to authorise some or all of the activities, and to build an online portal through which applicant information can be lodged, stored, retrieved, varied, checked and notified.
This would require regulatory changes but offer more flexibility for businesses looking to get involved.
The report was dismissive of concerns expressed in the consultation about "the risk of criminal infiltration and diversion" within the scheme.
"Licence holders have a strong commercial interest to manage risks effectively and to safeguard the integrity of the industry," the report stated.
It has also urged "a more contemporary and comprehensive regulatory guide" be produced to explain the department's regulatory powers, and how and when they can be exercised.