By Lidia Kelly
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia will provide A$3 million ($2.03 million) for research on the use of cannabis to help cancer patients, its health minister said on Sunday, as the demand for medicinal cannabis products grows rapidly.
While legal in most of Australia, such products are allowed only to patients on the prescription of a doctor, and a license is required to grow and make medicinal cannabis.
On Sunday, Health Minister Greg Hunt said access had been permitted to more than 11,000 patients, with most approvals this year.
“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,” a ministry statement cited him as saying.
Health ministry data shows 78 companies now licensed to grow and harvest medicinal cannabis, up from one in March 2017.
Hunt was speaking at a fundraising walk led by Olivia Newton-John, the English-born Australian singer and actress who became an ardent advocate of medical cannabis after being diagnosed with cancer.
“I’m a great proponent of it, for general health, for pain, for sleep, for anxiety,” Newton-John told Nine News television last week. “I really believe it is important in my journey.”
Newton-John’s experience and efforts had helped shine a light on the benefits associated with medicinal cannabis, Hunt said, adding that the government would work to ensure access for Australian patients.
“But only when it is prescribed by a medical professional,” he added.
The government looks unlikely to change its stance on the recreational use of cannabis, however.
Federal law prohibits such use, although late in September, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) became the first of the country’s six states and two main territories to legalize cannabis for personal use.
Attorney-General Christian Porter is awaiting a copy of the final version of the ACT bill before deciding whether the federal government should override the territory legislation, the Weekend Australian newspaper said on Saturday.
The ACT law, due to take effect from January 31, conflicts with national drug laws that ban possession of marijuana.
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)