While there are many ways to consume medicinal cannabis in Australia with a valid prescription, each patient’s response can vary due to our individual endocannabinoid systems, tolerance levels and other biological factors.   

It’s essential to work with your doctor to find a cannabis format that works best for you, to get the duration and strength needed to treat your symptoms. Let’s explore some of the ways to consume medicinal cannabis.

Inhalation  

There are two ways to consume cannabis via inhalation – smoking and vaporising. Medicinal cannabis should be vaporised using an Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) registered dry-herb vaporiser within the temperature range advised by a prescribing doctor.  

Vaping heats cannabis without burning it, releasing cannabinoids and terpenes as vapour for inhalation. This method allows for direct absorption into the bloodstream through the lungs.  

Potential benefits of vaping cannabis may include: 

  • Rapid onset and fast relief: The first effects ordinarily occur within 90 seconds and reach a maximum after 15–30 minutes before wearing off after 2–4 hours 
  • Temperature control and enhanced cannabinoid and terpene uptake: At least 40 per cent of the THC dose in cannabis is lost in side stream/combustion when smoked, making it difficult to estimate the amount of THC an individual patient is receiving 
  • Convenience: Easy transportation of the vaporiser allows patients to use their correct dose of cannabis flower wherever and whenever needed 
  • Discretion: Vaping doesn’t release as strong a smell due to the cannabis being safely heated rather than burnt 
  • Legal in public smoking areas with a prescription: Vaping is the only inhalation method approved for medicinal cannabis consumption by the TGA  
  • Less harmful: Reduction in carcinogens, respiratory symptoms and pyrolytic smoke compounds compared with smoking.  

Potential side effects of vaping cannabis may include: 

  • Lung injuries, including EVALI (E-cigarette or Vaping Associated Lung Injury). The risk of lung damage increases significantly if your vape product contains vitamin E acetate, which is not present in ARTG registered vaporisers.  
  • Burns, liquid ingestion, injuries from unapproved vape pens, cartridges and e-liquids, and inhaling toxic chemicals (which can lead to ‘popcorn lung’), carcinogens and addictive substances like dextromethorphan.  

Ingestion  

Oral medicinal cannabis treatments come in tinctures, oils, capsules, lozenges or sprays – but not all of these are available in Australia. Although the effects take longer to kick in compared to inhalation, they can last longer, similar to other slow-release drugs. 

When ingested orally, cannabinoids are absorbed through the digestive system and metabolised in the liver. 

In a 2020 study of 1600 participants, oral consumption was the most common method for medicinal cannabis use (72%) in Australia. Cannabis-infused edibles; gummies, cookies, candies, drinks and more, are popular in other countries, however they are not currently available for medicinal use in Australia unless prescribed by a doctor.  

Potential benefits of ingesting cannabis may include: 

  • Minimal risk to lung health  
  • Ability to manage dose in exact measurements  
  • Longer-lasting effects (in most cases). 

Potential side effects of ingesting cannabis may include: 

  • Slow release: It may take 30 minutes to two hours to feel the full effects of ingested cannabis 
  • Potential for a second spike of psychoactive effects when the THC is metabolised in the liver.  

Sublingual  

By placing the treatment under the tongue, active ingredients are absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the blood vessels in your mouth. Bypassing the digestive system means a higher concentration of cannabinoids may be absorbed faster. Sublingual methods include cannabis oil, tinctures, lozenges, tablets, sprays, wafers and more – but not all of these are available in Australia. 

Potential benefits of sublingual use of cannabis may include:  

  • Faster onset of effects than ingestion: Typically 15– 40 minutes  
  • Minimal risk to lung health  
  • Ability to manage dose in exact measurements  
  • Discreet consumption  
  • Longer shelf life 
  • Possibly easier to store than cannabis flower, edibles and other treatments.  

Potential side effects of sublingual use of cannabis may include:

  • Taste: Depending on the sublingual treatment prescribed, a patient may not like the taste of the medicine.  

Topical  

Cannabis balms, lotions, creams, salves and transdermal patches can be applied directly to the skin to relieve pain, inflammation and skin irritations. CBD skin creams may be prescribed to treat symptoms of acne, psoriasis and eczema, arthritis, neuropathy pain and jaw pain. 

When using most topical methods, cannabinoids react with receptors under the top layers of the skin but do not typically reach the bloodstream. Transdermal patches are designed to slowly release cannabinoids into the bloodstream over a longer period, usually producing effects within 15 minutes.  

Potential benefits of topical use of cannabis may include: 

  • Non-impairing: Even when a topical treatment contains THC, it doesn’t penetrate blood vessels, so it’s unlikely to produce psychoactive effects  
  • No dose limitations 
  • Discreet and easy to use. 

Potential side effects of topical use of cannabis may include: 

  • Continued application: Some treatments may require use multiple times a day 
  • Visibility: A transdermal patch may be visible depending on the area that requires treatment.

Connect with a doctor to discuss whether plant-based healthcare is right for you. 

This article is intended as general information and is not a substitute for medical advice from your treating doctor.  You must always speak with your doctor about the appropriate treatment for you based on your individual health circumstances.

Further Reading