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Medicinal cannabis

4-minute read

Medicinal cannabis comes as a pill, oil, nasal spray or some other form of cannabis plant extract. It is used to relieve the symptoms of some medical conditions. Medicinal cannabis is being researched worldwide due to its potential to help a number of conditions, but its use is very highly regulated in Australia.

What is medicinal cannabis?

Medicinal cannabis is a medicine that comes from the cannabis sativa plant (commonly called marijuana). This plant is the same one used to make the recreational drug (also called marijuana), which is illegal in most states and territories. However, medicinal cannabis and the recreational drug should not be confused. Unlike medicinal cannabis, marijuana is not a medicine and contains unknown quantities of active ingredients and other impurities.

Medicinal cannabis has been shown to relieve pain, prevent or reduce vomiting, and it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. This is because substances called cannabinoids act on the body’s endocannabinoid system. This is a communications system in the brain and body that influences mood, memory, sleep and appetite. However, you can only access medicinal cannabis products legally through a healthcare practitioner. See the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) website for more information.

The cannabis plant contains 80 to 100 cannabinoids. The one that gets people high is called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Other cannabinoids have been shown to relieve symptoms of disease. International research is looking at the therapeutic properties of some of the other cannabinoids.

The side effects of medicinal cannabis are still being studied. They may include:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • problems with balance
  • problems with thinking and memory

Medicinal cannabis is tightly regulated. Some products are approved for use in Australia, including nabiximols and synthetic cannabinoids. These products are formulated so that they have the greatest medical effect and the fewest possible side effects.

Other products, containing fixed doses of cannabinoids and THC that derive from the cannabis plant, can be prescribed by a doctor. However, these medicines have not been approved by the TGA. This means that they have not gone through the same regulatory process as other prescription medicines. More information is available on the TGA website.

Who might benefit from medicinal cannabis?

There hasn’t been enough research yet to prove the benefits of medicinal cannabis. But it is showing promise for some people with chronic or terminal illnesses who don’t get relief from other medicines, or to help control some of the side effects caused by other medicines.

Researchers are investigating the use of medicinal cannabis for several conditions, including:

How can I access medicinal cannabis?

Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) regulates the supply of medicinal cannabis. Doctors can apply to the TGA to supply medicinal cannabis to certain patients through the Authorised Prescriber Scheme and the Special Access Scheme. Patients may be able to access medicinal cannabis through a specialist doctor, their GP, or if they are taking part in a clinical trial.

You cannot apply to the TGA to get medicinal cannabis yourself; only your doctor can apply. The doctor must meet certain requirements, must obtain permits, and must also comply with relevant state laws. However, the laws are different in each state, and this may affect whether you can get access to medicinal cannabis.

You can check the laws in your state by visiting:

The Australian Government recently changed the law to allow organisations to grow cannabis for research and to make pharmaceutical products. Growing cannabis yourself or using it for non-medical purposes is still illegal in most states and territories in Australia. However, in the ACT, the laws governing the growing, possession and use of cannabis have changed.

Do not try to import cannabis products or smoke 'street' marijuana to try to treat your symptoms. As well as this being illegal, you have no control over the dose or what is in the product. Also, there hasn’t been research into any side effects, and any form of smoking can give you cancer.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Could medicinal cannabis help my condition?
  • Is it safe for me to use?
  • Will it affect my other medications?
  • Are there any side effects?

You can also use healthdirect's Question Builder to prepare a list of questions that can be printed or emailed, so you remember what you want to ask.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2022

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