July 9, 2019
Cannabis in Australia

Medical Cannabis in Australia

Cannabis for medicinal use has been legal in Australia since 2016, yet there is still a lot of misinformation and confusion. Thankfully, things are improving and, as of early 2019, the government has approved over 4,200 applications for medicinal cannabis. This number continues to increase month to month with over 700 approvals in February 2019 alone and over 1300 in May. Now more than ever, access and understanding around cannabis and its medical use is becoming more widely accepted. If you’re confused about how to access medical cannabis in Australia, what’s legal or how cannabis may be able to help you or a loved one, we are here to help.

australia medical legal cannabis

What Is Medicinal Cannabis?

Medicinal cannabis products can be legally prescribed to patients by a doctor. Medicinal cannabis is the cannabis plants when used to treat the symptoms of certain medical conditions, and the side effects of diseases, viruses and other medical ailments or treatments. There are different medicinal cannabis products available to treat different conditions.  

The active ingredients in medicinal cannabis are called 'cannabinoids'. In total, there are over 110  cannabinoids in medicinal cannabis, the most common cannabinoids are cannabidiol (CBD) the non intoxicating compound and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the intoxicating compound. Depending on the specific plant or strain, there are different levels of CBD and THC. Because of the stigma associated with cannabis, much is still unknown, but researchers are investigating how taking cannabis effects the human body in hopes of further treating different medical conditions.  

medical cannabis access in Australia

What Can Medicinal Cannabis Be Used For?

While cannabis has been used as medicine for centuries, scientist and researchers have only just begun to understand and tap into the overwhelming amount of data, tests and case studies to explain how, and why cannabis is such a powerful medical alternative. The research is young and there is still not much formal evidence for doctors to rely on if they are thinking about prescribing cannabis to a patient. However, early research is promising, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence and, since cannabis has become more accepted, more research is being conducted that suggests cannabis products may be useful in treating the conditions below and possibly even more:

  • Epilepsy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia  
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Appetite loss
  • Arthritis  
  • Pain
  • Anxiety
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscle spasms

medical cannabis flower green weed growing outside

How Much Does Medicinal Cannabis Cost?

In Australia, most medicines prescribed by your doctor are subsidised by the Commonwealth Government under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). Unfortunately, no cannabis products are currently subsidised by the PBS so the patient must pay out of pocket for treatment. The cost of medicinal cannabis varies depending on the type of product and the dose recommended by your doctor.  

A doctor or specialist can apply to the government for approval to prescribe medicinal cannabis for any medical condition.  The doctor may have to provide evidence that shows that medicinal cannabis may be effective for the particular condition being treated, further educating general practitioners around medicinal cannabis use has proven to increase prescription rates and support a more holistic approach to treating some of the previously listed conditions.  

How Can Australians Get Cannabis?

Both Australian and international companies are cultivating and manufacturing medicinal cannabis products to support the rapidly growing demand. To support patient access, the Australian government has allowed cannabis products to be imported from foreign countries. Both imported and domestically produced medicinal cannabis products are subject to stringent controls to ensure the products are used for medical purposes only.  

The Australian government has simplified the rules and regulations surrounding cannabis. They have also developed an online ordering system that has streamlined the application process for prescribers, allowing for easier access. Patients can now simultaneously apply for both Commonwealth and state or territory approval in a single online form. Applications are processed within two business days if all the required information is provided. All states and territories are participating in this system except for Tasmania.  

kangaroos sterotypical australian photo

How Are Doctors Prescribing Cannabis?

The government understands that many doctors know very little about medicinal cannabis or may be reluctant to prescribe it due to limited research. To help address this, the federal government have created some clinical guidance documents in conjunction with state and territory governments under the co-ordination of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.  

The government is also providing doctors with updates about the clinical evidence and raise awareness of how to prescribe medicinal cannabis. In addition, the government have created a presentation for medical conferences and public workshops on how to access and prescribe medicinal cannabis.

Lastly, the Australian government is encouraging and funding research into medicinal cannabis with the aim of further understanding cannabis and its medical applications, eventually including more medicinal cannabis products and discovering more about cannabis.  

Cannabis Import and Exporting – Why does it matter?

The export of medicinal cannabis allows Australian industries to compete on a global level with other international cannabis companies. Prior to this change, international companies could import into Australia but not vice versa, which placed a constraint on the domestic cannabis industry.  

The importing and exporting is a win-win situation for all involved – assisting patients with access and Australian manufacturers to scale production at higher levels, which in turn reduces cost through the introduction of fair competition.

medical cannabis portioned and weighed australia

Can I Bring Cannabis Into Australia?

If you are travelling to Australia, you can carry up to a 3 months’ supply of medicinal cannabis for yourself or a passenger in your care, provided you can provide a prescription information from a doctor. However, it is recommended that you leave your cannabis at home as it can cause unnecessary problems unless it’s absolutely necessary to your health or you’re planning on staying in Australia for a prolonged period of time.  

What Lessons Have We Learned?

Australia’s cannabis policy balances patient access with appropriate safeguards in the form of laws and regulations. Access is administered under the same pathways used for all other medical products. It is ultimately the prescribing doctors, together with their patient through informed consent, who takes the responsibility for use of medicinal cannabis under the governmental laws.  

The government believes patient treatment is best placed in the hands of those closest to them – doctors and other medical practitioners. These medical practitioners best understand the clinical needs of their individual patient including the potential risks and benefits of treatment.

Conclusion

Victoria became the first state to legalize medicinal cannabis in April 2016, with prescriptions also available in New South Wales and Western Australia while Queensland and Tasmania followed in 2017. Today thousands of Australians are getting relief from cannabis products. The medical cannabis industry in Australia is young, as is the research and understanding of this complex plant. To learn more about cannabis, the myths and misconceptions about its use and stay up to date on Australia’s new developing cannabis market, subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media.  

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