Cannabis refers to a group of plants with psychoactive properties, known as Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. The term cannabis is widely used to refer to any plant in the genus Cannabis, including dried flowers and leaves (marijuana), seeds, extracts and resins. Between 60 and 100 chemicals called cannabinoids and some 300 non-cannabinoid chemicals are produced by the cannabis plant.
In Australia, medicinal cannabis refers to a range of quality assured, pharmaceutical cannabis preparations intended for therapeutic use.
Medicinal cannabis products must be prescribed by a doctor to treat the symptoms of a medical condition or, the side effects of a medical treatment (e.g. chemotherapy). Medicinal cannabis preparations include tablets, oils, tinctures and other extracts.
Medicinal cannabis products are predominantly extracts from the cannabis plant – called ‘phytocannabinoids’ – used to treat an expanding list of medical conditions including epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, chronic non-cancer pain, nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, and palliative (end-of-life) care.
CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of many cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Researchers have been looking at the possible therapeutic uses of CBD. CBD is not psychoactive i.e. it doesn’t result in the ‘high’ feeling often related to the use of cannabis.
CBD oil can be extracted from the leaves, stalk, and flowers of the cannabis plant and manufactured with a carrier oil such as hemp, olive or MCT oil. CBD oil can be ingested sublingually, in capsules or mixed with food or drinks or applied topically.
Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the main cannabinoid responsible for the ‘high’ and psychoactive effects produced by cannabis, and the reason for recreational use as an illicit drug. Certain THC containing products have been registered on the ARTG (Australian Registry of Therapeutic Goods) for specific disease states.
Hemp, or industrial hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant species and is cultivated for seed or fibre production. Hemp has very low levels of THC (max 1%) and as a consequence does not have psychoactive effects. Hemp fibre and pulp can be used in industrial and consumer textiles, paper and building materials, while hemp seed and hemp seed oil can be used in industrial products, cosmetics and food products.
Generally, there is no difference between marijuana and cannabis and the two terms are often used to describe the same thing. Cannabis describes cannabis products in general. Marijuana specifically refers to cannabis products that are made from the dried flowers, leaves, stems and seeds of the cannabis plant.
Accessing medicinal cannabis
Patients can access medicinal cannabis on prescription from their authorised medical practitioner and dispensed by a pharmacist.
No. In Australia, any medical practitioner can prescribe a medicinal cannabis product for their patient, if they believe it is clinically appropriate and have the necessary Commonwealth and/or state approvals.
Medical practitioners do not need to gain accreditation, nor be specialists in a particular field.
Any patient, with any medical condition can be prescribed medicinal cannabis by their doctor, if the medical practitioner believes it is clinically appropriate and the best treatment for the condition, after considering all treatment options.
For patients, the first step is to discuss medicinal cannabis with your doctor.
Legal medicinal cannabis products can only be accessed via prescription from your treating doctor or specialist, where they believe it may be beneficial for your condition.
Your doctor will need to apply for the relevant Commonwealth and/or State approvals to prescribe medicinal cannabis.
Medicinal cannabis is a relatively new treatment, and some health professionals may not yet feel sufficiently informed to prescribe it.
Seeking a second opinion for important healthcare decisions from another healthcare professional can give you reassurance about a decision or give you the opportunity to opt for a different choice about a diagnosis or treatment.
Medicinal cannabis and the law
No. The changes to the Narcotics Drugs Act 1967 to allow the controlled cultivation of cannabis for medicinal or scientific purposes under a national licencing scheme came into operation on 30 October 2016. However, this law does not apply to growing or using cannabis for recreational or non-medical purposes. The use or cultivation of cannabis outside of regulated medicinal purposes remains illegal, unless this cultivation is allowed because of specific local guidelines, like in the ACT in Australia. For the rest of the country, people cannot legally grow their own cannabis for medicinal use even if it has been prescribed to them by an authorised doctor.
It is a criminal offence to drive with THC present in your saliva, blood or urine. If your treatment plan does include medicinal cannabis containing THC, this puts you at risk to have THC present while driving. Patients should discuss the implications for safe and legal driving with their doctor.
There are various initiatives addressing the concerns of driving while having certain cannabinoids in your system. Information can be found in the following links: