All the basics you need to know about medicinal cannabis in Australia.
What is medicinal cannabis?
Medicinal cannabis is cannabis that is used for any therapeutic purposes. This includes cannabis products in any form (pharmaceutical preparations, cannabis extracts, oils, tinctures, and dry flower) to help treat or relieve symptoms of an expanding list of medical conditions.
Is medicinal cannabis legal in Australia?
Yes, in 2016 the cultivation and use of any parts of the cannabis plant for medical purposes was legalized in Australia.
However, you can’t simply go to a doctor, obtain a prescription, and fill it at a pharmacy as you would with conventional registered medicines. Most cannabis-based medicines do not appear on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG), and require approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and the relevant State or Territory’s Health Department. Learn more here.
What are the active ingredients of medicinal cannabis?
The cannabis plant contains more than 400 plant constituents with approximately 100 that are specific to the cannabis plant and referred to as cannabinoids.1,2 The most abundant and well-characterised cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). 1,2 But the other prominent cannabinoids can also have their own biological activity and influence overall medication effect when in combination. Learn more here.
Additionally, the plant also contains terpenes, flavonoids, and essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and 6 fatty acids. 1,2
The different parts of the plant produce these constituents at different concentrations. For example, the inflorescence ‘flower’ of the female plant produces the highest concentration and consistency of cannabinoids, whilst the seeds provide the richest source of omega fatty acids.
What is the difference between THC and CBD?
THC and CBD are the two most abundant cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Although they look similar, they have different, sometimes opposing, actions in the body. For example, THC can have intoxicating effects at high doses, while CBD does not. While they both have medicinal properties, the risk of THC’s intoxicating effects makes it less desirable as a functional medication and therefore CBD has grown in popularity as a compound to be explored for medicinal properties.
What are the main forms of medicinal cannabis?
There are many different types of medicinal cannabis that differ in cannabinoid profile, strength, formulation and quality.
Medicinal cannabis products are available as:
- Oil (most common)
- Oro-mucosal sprays
For cannabis oils (the most common format) there are three main types:
- Cannabinoid isolate, which contains only THC or only CBD at different concentrations
- Full-spectrum extracts, providing a large range of cannabinoids and other plant constituents at different concentrations. These products are typically high in THC or CBD and have lower levels of the other lesser-known minor phytocannabinoids.
- Broad-spectrum extracts, do not contain the full range of constituents naturally present in the starting plant material. Instead, the extract is manipulated to remove or add specific plant constituents. Typically THC will have been removed.
How does medicinal cannabis work?
The endocannabinoid system helps regulate many different functions, including memory, mood, pain, appetite, inflammation, and metabolism to name a few.3
What conditions can medicinal cannabis be used to treat?
In Australia, because it is still an unapproved form of treatment, the TGA will need to assess each request for prescription and determine if there is sufficient evidence to support its use. Medicinal cannabis may be prescribed for a broad range of conditions due to its action on the endocannabinoid system, and other systems and research into its potential therapeutic benefits continues to grow.
How to get medicinal cannabis?
Any medical doctor can prescribe medicinal cannabis in Australia with the approval from the TGA and the relevant State or Territory’s Health Department. Find out more about the process in our step-by-step guide.
Want to know more?
- ElSohly M and Gul W (2014): Constituents of cannabis sativa. Pertwee RG, editor. Handbook of Cannabis. Oxford University Press, pp. 3-22.
- ElSohly M, et al. Phytochemistry of Cannabis sativa L. Prog Chem Org Nat Prod. 2017;103:1-36. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-45541-9_1.
- Lu HC, Mackie K. Review of the Endocannabinoid System. Biol Psychiatry Cogn Neurosci Neuroimaging. 2021;6(6):607-615. doi:10.1016/j.bpsc.2020.07.016