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Article by 

Susan Palmer

Medical cannabis continues to be a hot topic, with an increasing number of Australians swearing by its medical benefits. In 2016, the cultivation, production and distribution of medicinal marijuana was legalised in Australia. The decision to allow the prescribing and dispensing of these products was agreed upon.

For many, the subject remains a bit of a taboo topic. Are there side effects? Is it addictive? How do I find out who is eligible to get a prescription?

As a carer, seeking solutions and strategies for your loved one’s health and wellbeing is always a constant.

Can medical cannabis be one of those answers?

What is medicinal cannabis?

Deriving from the cannabis plant, (or more commonly known as marijuana), medical cannabis can relieve the symptoms of some medical conditions. While the cannabis plant contains 80 to 100 cannabinoids, most medical cannabis has two of these cannabinoids – tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

THC is also the chemical that gets people high while CBD has no intoxicating effects and can treat a suite of symptoms including arthritis and lower back pain.

In Australia, the term medicinal cannabis tends to be favoured to help draw the distinction between the medicinal aspects of the plant and the use of marijuana as an illegal recreational drug.

Medicinal cannabis and marijuana – what’s the difference?

Recreational cannabis (marijuana) is a drug that is illegal in most states and territories. Marijuana is not a medicine. The number of active ingredients in marijuana is unknown and it may also contain other impurities.

What are the different types of products are available?

With more than 100 different types of these products on the market, most are taken orally.

They include

  • oils
  • pills and gummies
  • dried flower products

Medicinal cannabis products contain THC and/or CBD.

So why take it?

Medical cannabis is usually used for the treatment of chronic pain (not related to cancer). This might include arthritis pain, lower back pain, neck pain, and neuropathic or nerve pain. Solutions containing THC and sometimes also CBD are used to treat these conditions. You take this orally (by mouth). It is also used to treat anxiety, cancer-related symptoms, epilepsy, insomnia, and multiple sclerosis. People with epilepsy and anxiety most often use CBD-only products.

Research into uses for medicinal cannabis is happening both in Australia and worldwide.

What are the side effects of using it?

There is continual research underway to look at the possible side effects. They may include difficulty concentrating, dizziness, drowsiness, and challenges with balance, thinking, and memory. There also could be an increased or decreased appetite and impairments to cognitive function.

What are the potential benefits of it?

While there isn’t enough research to prove that medicinal cannabis works, there are promising signs which show people with chronic or terminal illnesses report experiencing much less pain and don’t get relief from other medicines.

In addition, medical cannabis also helps people with the side effects caused by other medicines.
There is also continued research being investigated around the use of medicinal cannabis for several other conditions including epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, non-cancer chronic pain, and palliative care.

How can you get it?

You can only get legal medicinal cannabis products from your doctor, or specialist, or by taking part in a clinical trial. Your first step is to discuss medicinal cannabis with your doctor. Then your doctor will decide if medicinal cannabis will help you and which medicinal cannabis product to prescribe. Your doctor will also need to complete forms to get the necessary government approvals. Once approved, your doctor can write you a prescription. You can take this prescription to any pharmacy to have your medicinal cannabis product dispensed.

The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) doesn’t cover medicinal cannabis. The cost of medicinal cannabis can vary from $50 to $1000 per week. This depends on your illness, the product and the dose.

Medicinal cannabis regulation

In 2016, the Australian Government legalised access to medicinal cannabis. Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) regulates the supply of medicinal cannabis.

It is important to understand the risks if you don’t follow the law.

Most medicinal cannabis products are unregistered drugs. This means that they have not gone through the same regulatory process as other prescription medicines. More information is available on the TGA website. To prescribe these products your doctor must have approval from the TGA. This can be via the Special Access Scheme-B or Authorised Prescriber Scheme. Some medicinal cannabis products are registered for use in Australia, including nabiximols and synthetic cannabinoids. The laws are different in each state or territory. This may affect whether you can get access to medicinal cannabis.

You can check the laws in your state by visiting:

  • ACT Health
  • NSW Government
  • Northern Territory Department of Health
  • Queensland Health
  • SA Health
  • Tasmanian Department of Health
  • Victoria Department of Health
  • Healthy WA

Can I drive after using medicinal cannabis?

The simple answer is no. THC will impact your driving and can increase your risk of having a car accident. This risk can last for up to eight hours after taking oral THC products. You should also not operate heavy machinery. You may test positive for THC on roadside drug testing and must face the associated legal sanctions. There is no evidence that CBD effects driving. However, CBD can cause drowsiness, fatigue and low blood pressure. You should discuss the impact of CBD on your driving with your doctor.

Can I grow my own?

Growing cannabis for your own use is still illegal except for in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). In the ACT, the laws governing the growing, possession and use of cannabis have changed. In other states, you will face a fine or prison sentence if you are caught using, growing, selling and/ or supplying cannabis.

Other things to remember:

  • Don’t buy marijuana products from overseas.
  • Don’t smoke ‘street’ marijuana to try and your symptoms as this is illegal and you don’t have any control over the dose or what is in the product.
  • Smoking cannabis allows cancer causing substances (carcinogens) into your lungs with smoked cannabis containing at least 50 of the same carcinogens as tobacco.

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR GP

If you want to know about medicinal cannabis, talk to your GP. Be armed with lots of questions which may include:

  • Can medicinal cannabis help my condition?
  • Is it safe for me to use?
  • How will the benefits from medicinal cannabis differ from my other medications?
  • Can medicinal cannabis replace any of my current medications?
  • Will it affect the other medications I take? If so, how?
  • Are there any side effects or risks?
  • Which medicinal cannabis product is right for me?
  • How will medicinal cannabis affect my ability to do everyday tasks?
  • Can I get funding or financial support for medicinal cannabis?

For further information, please visit the TGA website.

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