An Australian health official has apologised for lengthy delays in processing cannabis applications — but says the government has been swamped by ten times the number it expected.

A six-month delay in issuing cannabis licences in Australia has now become a Cabinet-level problem said John Skerritt, deputy secretary for health products regulation. Mr Skerritt was speaking at the Cannatech cannabis conference in Sydney on Tuesday.

It’s only been in the last month the Department has received approval to recruit more staff.

Application evaluation averages are sitting at 195 days — or about 6.5 months.

“I’m very apologetic that there is a greater backlog and delay in processing than we’d like,” Mr Skerritt said at the Cannatech conference.

“We have been swamped by interest. We got a well-known big four company [whose name] I won’t mention, to go and survey industry and they came back and said we think you’re going to have about 18 max applications a year.”

The government’s Office of Drug Control (ODC) is now dealing with more than 190 licence applications.

As of October 12 it had issued 49 in the two years since the laws were implemented on October 30, 2016.

Mr Skerritt said he now has about 12 staff, up from four or five.

The licensing process is time-consuming. For example requirements include a “fit and proper person test” which means State police background checks on every person in an application.

Those 12 staff will also have to carry out initial and ongoing site visits to make sure there’s no excess production or threat of diversion into the black market.

Access still moving slowly

Patient approvals appear to the moving ahead slowly.

As of last week the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) had approved just over 2000 patients to use medical cannabis in Australia.

By October 12, the TGA had approved 1563 people to use unapproved medical cannabis drugs.

About 500 have been approved to use the world’s only registered cannabis drug, Sativex.

The TGA approved 231 people in August and 238 in September.

Getting pot into the people’s hands

The ODC and TGA should never have been made the arbiters of medical cannabis in Australia, says Epilepsy Action Australia boss Carol Ireland.

“We’ve gone very, very slowly,” she said at the Sydney conference of patient access.

“If we got back to 2012 when there was a major review done… that review led to an enquiry into whether a medical cannabis regulator should be established. The opinion I understand was very much in favour of that and it was rejected. I think that was our first mistake.

“We still have a situation where most people are forced to go to the illicit market and I don’t think that is a positive thing at all.”

She says talk of harmonising state and federal regulations had not proceeded very far yet, in spite of promises by states and territories in April that they’d look at doing so.

Ms Ireland says the next battleground for consumers will be on price as cannabis products used for medical reasons are expensive.

Only one Australian-made cannabis product is available in Australia yet – that came onto the market in September from Little Green Pharma – and the rest is imported, which adds to the cost.

Canada has faced the same issues but the market changed when it began to be treated as any other drug: when the regulator stopped reviewing applications and when limitations on the kinds of conditions cannabis could be prescribed for ended, said Jonathan Zaid, head of advocacy at global number two pot stock Aurora Cannabis.

He says they still struggle with affordability as there’s little insurance coverage for medical cannabis, and with an “unjust” sin tax that isn’t charged on other medications.