The cannabis (marijuana) plant has been used for both medicinal and recreational purposes for many centuries. Its reputation for giving the user a ‘high’ is well known, however, quality information about its medicinal uses has been hard to come by and is often misleading.

In 2016, the Australian Government via the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) granted limited approval for the cultivation, manufacture and prescription of medicinal cannabis products. These products can only be accessed by very ill patients with specific medical conditions and laws will vary from state to state.

It is well known that cannabis products are already available illegally in Australia for medicinal and recreational use. A basic Google search brings up claims of cannabis products being used to treat and, in some cases, cure conditions like cancer, anxiety, depression, muscle spasms, fibromyalgia, arthritis and more.

But how much of this is true?

What do we know about medicinal cannabis?

  • It has been proven to be an effective form of treatment for severe epilepsy, muscle spasms, side effects from cancer therapy and for palliative pain relief.1 & 2
  • There have been few professionally recognised clinical trials on cannabis products, largely due to the classification of cannabis as a prohibited substance in many countries. (Australia’s new classification has changed it to a ‘controlled drug’, allowing it to be used to make medications.)
  • The negative effects of medicinal cannabis have not been adequately researched and may include nausea, anxiety, impaired vision, psychotic episodes and other symptoms. It may also cause adverse reactions when taken with other medications.
  • The cannabis plant has many varieties which have different concentrations of cannabinoids. This, plus varying types and standards of production, results in inconsistent effects when used.
  • The cannabis plant has over 400 natural components. Of these, 66 are unique to this plant. They are known as ‘cannabinoids’. Subclasses include:
    • Tetrahydrocannabinols (THC)
    • Cannabidiols (CBD)
    • Cannabigerols (CBG)
    • Cannabichromenes (CBC)
    • Cannabinol (CBN) and cannabinodiol (CBDL)
  • THC is the most well-known cannabinoid and is also the most potent. This substance is primarily responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis. It is believed that some of the other cannabinoids, such as CBD, can counteract the effects of THC.3
  • CBD has also been well-researched for its medicinal benefits. It has analgesic, antiemetic and anti-carcinogenic properties.4
    Some research suggests that THC and CBD are most effective when used in combination.1
  • Cannabinoids bind to specific receptors within our central nervous system. Different cannabinoids interact with different parts of the brain including the areas that deal with memory, pain perception and feelings of reward.
  • Medicinal cannabis products come in different forms, mainly derived from cannabis oil. They include topical creams, vape oils, tinctures, and tablets.

Hemp is from the same family of plants as cannabis. It contains CBD and other cannabinoids but only traces of THC so it is less potent than cannabis. Hemp oil products are legally available in Australia but are not controlled by the TGA and standards vary widely.

The unofficial story

Many Australians have turned to an illegal supply of medicinal cannabis for the relief of severe muscle spasms, chronic pain and other health conditions when conventional medicines are not available or ineffective for them. Some parents of children with severe epilepsy, for example, have had to undertake a criminal act to access an effective treatment for their child.5

Medicinal cannabis is not currently listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Therefore, even those who have been granted permission to use the drug on compassionate grounds are often still prohibited from accessing it legally because it is too expensive.

How to legally access medicinal cannabis in Australia

The laws governing access to medicinal cannabis products will vary between the states. Some are still being drafted. In all cases, the products can only be prescribed by a doctor and accessed through a pharmacy.

At this stage, there is no local supply and international supply is also limited. Local products should start to appear on the market over the next few years. It is still illegal to grow or use cannabis for recreational purposes throughout Australia.

QLD – From March 2017, specialists may prescribe medicinal cannabis for some patients with severe conditions such as MS, epilepsy, cancer and HIV/AIDS.

NSW – Access will only be available for adults with end-of-life illnesses or for those on a state-sponsored clinical trial.

VIC – Access will be available for children with severe epilepsy from March 2017.

WA/SA – From November 2016, doctors have been able to prescribe medicinal cannabis under very strict conditions.

TAS/ACT – Legislation is yet to be released.

NT – No current position on legislation.

The long road ahead

Many of Australia’s peak health industry bodies (including Pain Australia and the Australian Medical Association) are advocating caution over the prescription of medicinal cannabis until much more clinical research has been done and the long-term effects are known.

In the meantime, practitioners, patients and their carers are still largely in the dark about the potential benefits and risks of medicinal cannabis and its future in the Australian healthcare system.

Because so much is unknown – the result of such little research being conducted – it stands to reason that more information is needed before Australia (as a society and medical industry) can benefit from safe and effective use of cannabis.

Would you use medicinal cannabis?
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This information should never replace the information and advice from your treating physician. It is meant to inform the discussion that you have with healthcare professionals, as well as others who play a role in your care and well-being.