Medical cannabis, legal in Australia since 2016, continues to gain interest from patients and providers as an alternative treatment for chronic pain and other medical conditions. Despite its legalisation, there are still strict eligibility criteria and approval processes to guarantee its quality, efficacy, safety and suitability for patients. As the industry evolves and as research advances, medicinal cannabis is likely to become a more accessible treatment option in the years to come. 

What is medical cannabis?   

Medical cannabis is a form of medication containing cannabinoids from the cannabis plant. Cannabinoids interact with receptors in the endocannabinoid system that regulate essential body functions such as pain sensation, appetite, mood and sleep. 

Medical cannabis is most commonly used for chronic pain, including nerve, neck, lower back and arthritic pain. Some cannabis doctors also prescribe medicinal cannabis to treat epilepsy, anxiety, insomnia, multiple sclerosis and nausea associated with chemotherapy. 

Although there are more than 100 types of cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, two are most commonly found in medical cannabis: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). CBD has been used to treat various conditions, especially chronic pain, with minimal to no intoxicating effects. There are many products available that use different strains of the plant and varying percentages of the active compounds THC and CBD. Patients should work closely with their doctor to find the right product and dosage for their condition. 

Recreational versus medical cannabis in Australia 

The primary differences between medical and recreational cannabis in Australia are legality, cultivation methods and quality control.  

Medical cannabis is legal in Australia, but heavily regulated by The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Any medical cannabis products must be prescribed by a doctor and are rigorously tested for quality, consistency, efficacy and safety before being made available to patients.  

The sale of cannabis for recreational purposes is currently prohibited in all Australian states and territories except ACT. Recreational cannabis is not bound by any quality or safety regulations, meaning it can be grown anywhere, and some supply may contain pesticides, moulds, or other harmful chemicals. 

How do healthcare professionals prescribe cannabis? 

There are two main pathways for accessing medical cannabis in Australia – the Special Access Scheme (SAS) and the Authorised Prescriber Scheme (APS). Let’s take a closer look at each of these pathways. 

SAS is a pathway for patients with a medical condition that is not adequately managed by conventional treatments. Under SAS, any doctor can apply to the TGA for permission to prescribe medicinal cannabis to a patient.  

APS is a pathway for doctors who have been approved by the TGA to prescribe medicinal cannabis without having to submit an individual application for each patient. This pathway is typically used for patients with chronic conditions that require ongoing treatment with medical cannabis. 

To become an authorised prescriber, a doctor must demonstrate that they have the appropriate qualifications and experience in the area of medicine that they will be prescribing medical cannabis for. They must also have sound knowledge of the risks and benefits of medical cannabis. 

Once a doctor is authorised, they can prescribe medical cannabis to their patients without having to submit individual applications to the TGA. This can make it easier and quicker for patients to access medical cannabis. 

Eligibility criteria for medical cannabis in Australia 

While Australian patients are able to access medical cannabis with a doctor’s prescription, it is not a decision to be taken lightly. Patients should carefully consider potential benefits and risks of medical cannabis before deciding if it is the right treatment for them. It is important for patients to have open and honest discussions with their usual doctor, to weigh the available evidence, and make informed decisions together. If a different doctor prescribes a cannabis medicine, they must communicate with the patient’s usual doctor to avoid potential risks. Medical cannabis may interact with other medications and there may be side effects. Ensuring the prescribing doctor has all the necessary information is critical to ensure the patient is safe and receives appropriate treatment.   

Any doctor or healthcare provider can prescribe medical cannabis for patients with specific medical conditions who may have exhausted traditional treatment options. To access medical cannabis products, prescribers apply to the TGA through the Special Access Scheme or Authorised Prescriber Scheme. Medical cannabis products may be available as either Schedule 8 (controlled), Schedule 4 (prescription only), or Schedule 3 (pharmacist only) medicines, depending on the type and concentration of active ingredients they contain.

Interested in exploring whether medical cannabis is right for you? Connect with an authorised prescriber.

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