On December 15, the Australian Department of Health’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) announced a final decision to down-schedule certain low-dose cannabidiol (CBD) products, allowing select medicinal cannabis products to be available over the counter.
This follows the United Nations’ (UN) decision at the start of December to remove cannabis and its derivatives from Schedule IV of the international treaty governing narcotic drugs, where it was listed among addictive opioids like heroin.
With official restrictions around medicinal cannabis slowly relaxing, more Australians may be wondering how it’s different from illicit cannabis and what it’s used to treat.
What is medicinal cannabis?
Medicinal cannabis is any cannabis-based product prescribed to relieve the symptoms of a medical condition.
When discussing medicinal cannabis, it’s important to understand the two main compounds (cannabinoids) found in cannabis: cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
The effects of THC are what the layman may commonly associate with cannabis. It’s a psychoactive compound, meaning it can cause a ‘high’, but it also provides a number of health benefits for some patients.
CBD, on the other hand, is non-psychoactive and actually counteracts the negative effects of THC, reducing memory impairment and paranoia.
Either or both of these compounds can be used to create medicinal products in a range of formats, including dried flower, vape concentrate, oil, oral spray or soft gels. Oils may be taken orally or incorporated into a cream, gel or lotion for topical treatment.
What is medicinal cannabis used for?
Medicinal cannabis has been found to be an effective medicine1 for the treatment of a vast range of symptoms, particularly where traditional prescriptions have proven ineffective.
THC and CBD have beneficial effects on a patient’s ability to manage symptoms such as pain, anxiety and nausea.
In addition to a euphoric high, THC may also impair a patient’s driving ability. A recent Australian study found that CBD does not impair a patient’s ability to drive, while THC can affect driving abilities for up to four hours. For this reason, CBD may be preferable for some patients.
THC-containing medicinal products may be used to combat:
- muscle spasticity, such as in patients with multiple sclerosis
- sleep problems, such as in patients with fibromyalgia, sleep apnoea and chronic pain
- low appetite
- nausea and vomiting, particularly in chemotherapy patients
Meanwhile, CBD-based products can be employed against:
- nausea and vomiting, particularly in chemotherapy patients.
How can a patient access medicinal cannabis in Australia?
While the TGA has down-scheduled CBD-containing products, there are currently no approved medicinal cannabis products on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) that meet the Schedule 3 criteria.
As such, patients must still seek a prescription for medicinal CBD products, or any products containing THC.
To be prescribed medicinal cannabis, a patient must have a condition diagnosed by a doctor, and have sought traditional treatment methods that resulted in unacceptable adverse side effects and/or no significant efficacy in treating the condition.
An eligible patient’s doctor must then submit an SAS-B application to the TGA, supported by clinical justification and relevant medical history.
Conditions including anorexia, anxiety, cancer pain, chronic pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis (MS) and stress regularly receive approval from the TGA. This means there is a precedent set that applications looking to treat these conditions will have a greater chance of success.
Up to November 30 2020, the TGA has approved over 80,000 SAS Category B applications for unapproved medicinal cannabis products.2
Patients seeking access to medicinal cannabis should first talk to their primary healthcare provider or existing medical team about the suitability of medical cannabis for their condition.
If a GP is not comfortable prescribing medicinal cannabis, but a patient still wishes to pursue it as a treatment option, Cannatrek Access links patients to qualified independent doctors. These doctors have experience with medicinal cannabis and will help the patient make an informed decision about the suitability of this treatment method.
Whilst research into the efficacy and effects of medicinal cannabis for certain treatments is increasing, it is currently in its early days. Patients should always talk to a health professional for advice on their unique requirements before making any decisions about their treatment options.
For the latest and most accurate information on how to prescribe, and be prescribed, medicinal cannabis, please head to the TGA website: https://www.tga.gov.au/medicinal-cannabis-guidance-documents.
- The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK425741/
- Therapeutic Goods Administration, December 2020. https://www.tga.gov.au/medicinal-cannabis-role-tga