Reducing the stigma of medicinal cannabis

Founding member of the Australian Cannabis Nurses Association (ACNA) Simone O’Brien

Australian nurses and midwives are being urged to get behind Medicinal Cannabis Awareness Week, and lend their support to the hundreds of thousands of patients who are still battling stigma and ignorance.

‘It’s about being well, not about being high’ is the central theme of Australia’s first Medicinal Cannabis Awareness Week 20-26 February, marking the seventh anniversary of legalisation in Australia.

Victorian nurse practitioner (NP) and founding member of the Australian Cannabis Nurses Association (ACNA) Simone O’Brien said reducing stigma for people was paramount to increasing access to medicinal cannabis for people in need.

“People seek to use medicinal cannabis for a reason. There are so many potential populations that it helps.” It is thought that medicinal cannabis can treat various illnesses by acting on the endocannabinoid system, the largest receptor in the body.

Ms O’Brien is a NP who has spent over 30 years working in rural health across acute, emergency, aged and community care.  In 2019, she was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma and had surgery on her right leg. Six months later, she slipped and fractured her left leg requiring two surgeries and bone grafts, which resulted in six months off work.

It was while on bed rest for four months recovering and with chronic pain that Ms O’Brien did a ‘deep dive’ into medicinal cannabis – how it works, and legislation and access in Australia and around the world. She has since undertaken several courses in prescribing medicinal cannabis and is passionate about patient access to cannabis as medicine.

Leading advocates, researchers, and healthcare professionals are behind a national push to increase education around medicinal cannabis, as experts say the industry has reached a tipping point since the federal government legalised medicinal cannabis as a treatment option for patients in 2016.

Seven years on, demand and supply for products have risen significantly, with prescriptions having doubled in the past two years

Chair of the Australian Medicinal Cannabis Association (AMCA) Lucy Haslam says patient education has been left behind amid rapid industry growth, and both the medical community and ordinary Australians were still battling stigma associated with medicinal cannabis.

“Without public health messaging, people have been forced to seek out information for themselves. It creates confusion. It really is still about getting people away from the illicit market and under the care of their own doctor,” Ms Haslam said.

Ms O’Brien, works as a NP at Heathcote Health which has a medicinal cannabis clinic that bulk-bills patients, said about 50% of her patients still convert from illicit to medicinal cannabis. Access remains an issue for many patients, she said.

“[Illicit] cannabis is never the best – you don’t know the conditions in which it’s been grown, whether it’s been sprayed with any herbicides or pesticides that people may then inhale and there’s the interface in the trade with dealers.”

While it is estimated that by 2030 approximately 670,000 patients will be seeking access to medicinal cannabis in Australia, research shows most consumers continue to use illicit products.

“It’s extraordinary that in 2023 we are still working through the stigma and shaming experienced by patients and healthcare professionals,” said Ms Haslam who lost her son Dan, aged 25, to bowel cancer in February 2015. Dan Haslam was one of the key campaigners behind the successful legal reform of medicinal cannabis in Australia.

“A public awareness campaign is necessary to champion education programs for medicinal cannabis. It was actually one of the recommendations of a federal government 2019 Senate Inquiry,” Ms Haslam said.

Ms O’Brien was approached by Lucy Haslam, a retired RN, to help set up the Australian Cannabis Nurses Association (ACNA) in response to an overwhelming demand from nurses on the ground looking for more information.

“We were receiving numerous enquiries from nurses around the country advocating for their patients. We set up the group because of demand,” she said.

The ACNA is for nurses working in, or with an interest in, cannabinoid therapies in Australia.

Its founding mission statement is: Awareness, Advocacy & Compassion, with a website launching this week.

“I encourage nurses looking to access more information about the endocannabinoid system and medicinal cannabis to join us. The fee is minimal [$50] and you receive dual membership of ACNA and AMCA which gives you access to a large amount of educational resources and networks.”

There is a proposal for a nurse education program to be developed by ACNA. This program would be part of the TEACH-HUB website, which will be operated as an NFP Independent medicinal cannabis training and information site for all HCPs, including nurses, prescribers and pharmacists.

ACNA is also advocating to get study of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) into the undergraduate Bachelor of Nursing curriculum to increase understanding and awareness in students.

Simone O’Brien will be speaking at this year’s Medicinal Cannabis Symposium – United in Compassion Conference
11-13 August 2023
Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, Qld

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