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Medicinal cannabis

8-minute read

What is medicinal cannabis?

Medicinal cannabis is a medicine that comes from the cannabis plant (also called marijuana). Medicinal cannabis can relieve the symptoms of some medical conditions.

The cannabis plant contains 80 to 100 cannabinoids. Two of these cannabinoids are:

  • tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
  • cannabidiol (CBD)

Most medicinal cannabis products contain THC and/or CBD.

THC is also the chemical that gets people high. CBD has no intoxicating effects and can treat a wide range of symptoms.

International research is looking at the benefits of some of the other cannabinoids.

What is the difference between medicinal cannabis and marijuana?

Recreational cannabis (marijuana) is a drug which is illegal in most states and territories.

Marijuana is not a medicine. The amount of active ingredients in marijuana are unknown. It may also contain other impurities.

What different types of medicinal cannabis products are there?

There are more than 100 different medicinal cannabis products available. You take most products by mouth. They include oils, pills and dried flower products. Medicinal cannabis products contain THC and/or CBD.

What is medicinal cannabis used for?

Medicinal cannabis is most often used for the treatment of chronic pain (not related to cancer). This might include:

Solutions containing THC and sometimes also CBD are used to treat these conditions. You take this medicinally cannabis orally (by mouth).

Medicinal cannabis can also treat:

People with epilepsy and anxiety most often use CBD-only products.

Research into uses for medicinal cannabis is happening both in Australia and worldwide.

Are there any side effects of medicinal cannabis?

Research is looking at the side effects of medicinal cannabis. They may include:

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

Would I benefit from medicinal cannabis?

There hasn’t been enough research to prove the benefits of medicinal cannabis.

Medicinal cannabis is showing promise for people with chronic (ongoing) or terminal illnesses, who don’t get relief from other medicines.

Some side effects caused by other medicines are helped by medicinal cannabis.

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

How can I get medicinal cannabis?

You can only get legal medicinal cannabis products from your doctor, specialist, or by taking part in a clinical trial.

Your first step is to discuss medicinal cannabis with your doctor. Your doctor will decide:

  • if medicinal cannabis will help you
  • which medicinal cannabis product to prescribe

Your doctor will also need to complete forms to get the necessary government approvals.

Once approved, your doctor can write you a prescription. You can take this prescription to any pharmacy to have your medicinal cannabis product dispensed.

The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) doesn't cover medicinal cannabis. The cost of medicinal cannabis can vary from $50 to $1000 per week. This depends on:

  • your illness
  • the product
  • the dose

How is medicinal cannabis regulated in Australia?

In 2016, the Australian Government legalised access to medicinal cannabis.

Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) regulates the supply of medicinal cannabis.

Most medicinal cannabis products are unregistered drugs. This means that they have not gone through the same regulatory process as other prescription medicines. More information is available on the (TGA) website.

To prescribe these products, your doctor must have approval from the TGA. This can be via the Special Access Scheme-B or Authorised Prescriber Scheme.

Some medicinal cannabis products are registered for use in Australia, including nabiximols and synthetic cannabinoids.

The laws are different in each state or territory. This may affect whether you can get access to medicinal cannabis.

You can check the laws in your state by visiting:

Can I drive after using medicinal cannabis?

THC will impact your driving and can increase your risk of having a car accident. This risk can last for up to 8 hours after taking oral THC products.

The effects of THC on your driving may be more noticeable if you only sometimes use THC. For up to 8 hours after each dose of THC you should not:

  • drive
  • operate heavy machinery

You may test positive for THC on roadside drug testing and must face the associated legal sanctions.

There is no evidence that CBD effects driving. However, CBD can cause:

You should discuss the impact of CBD on your driving with your doctor.

Can I grow my own medicinal cannabis?

In October 2016 medicinally cannabis was legalised. The Australian Government changed the law to allow organisations to grow cannabis for research and to make pharmaceutical products.

Growing cannabis for your own use is still illegal except for in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). In the ACT, the laws governing the growing, possession and use of cannabis have changed.

In other states, you will face a fine or prison sentence if you are caught:

  • using cannabis
  • growing cannabis
  • selling cannabis
  • supplying cannabis

Sources of medicinal cannabis to avoid

Do not buy marijuana products from overseas or smoke 'street' marijuana to try to treat your symptoms.

  • This is illegal.
  • You also have no control over the dose or what is in the product.
  • Smoking cannabis allows carcinogens (cancer causing substances) into your lungs. Smoked cannabis contains at least 50 of the same carcinogens as tobacco.

When returning to Australia from travelling, you can bring medicinal cannabis with you, if:

  • you have a prescription
  • you don't have more cannabis than the prescription says you will use in 3 months

However, it is illegal to import it through the mail or by courier.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Can medicinal cannabis help my condition?
  • Is it safe for me to use?
  • Will it affect my other medications?
  • Are there any side effects?
  • Will I be able to drive?

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.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

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

Last reviewed: May 2022

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