Frequently asked questions on medicinal cannabis

What is cannabis?

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.

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.

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What is medicinal cannabis?

The main cannabinoids studied and currently thought to be the most important for medical use are delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).Many other cannabinoids exist and a number are being researched for possible medical use.

The term ‘medicinal cannabis products’ covers a range of approved, quality assured cannabis preparations intended for human therapeutic use, including pharmaceutical cannabis preparations such as tablets, oils, tinctures and other extracts.

Crude cannabis is difficult for doctors to prescribe because the specific components (chemicals known as cannabinoids), the dose and potency in each plant is not tested or known.

Pharmaceutical preparations of cannabis contain specific active components in known amounts and mixtures, which optimise the therapeutic benefit and minimise side effects. The dose and strength of the preparation can be controlled and standardised, making it safer for patients to use.

The Commonwealth Department of Health regulates medicinal cannabis products through the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and the Office of Drug Control (ODC).

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What are the benefits of medicinal cannabis?

There is little high quality research on the benefits of medicinal cannabis and the clinical evidence (PDF 168KB) for its role is still under discussion and being investigated.

Medicinal cannabis preparations have been used with some reported success to relieve symptoms in some specific conditions, such as reducing spasticity and muscle pain in people with multiple sclerosis.

There is also some evidence that medicinal cannabis may be useful in treating seizures, nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, and also as an appetite stimulant for people living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection or cancer.

The Commonwealth TGA is preparing educational materials for doctors to support them in determining whether prescribing medicinal cannabis is appropriate and beneficial.This will likely be available in 2017.

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What are the side effects of medicinal cannabis?

It is important that medicinal cannabis is only used under medical supervision because it may interact with other medicines a patient is taking or cause adverse reactions.

The side effects of cannabis when used for medicinal purposes are not well understood. The side effects of cannabis that are known include vomiting, impaired coordination and performance, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and psychotic symptoms, as well as impaired ability to drive. 

Chronic cannabis use is associated with a number of negative health and social effects, including increased risk of respiratory diseases associated with smoking, cancer, mood disorders, exacerbation of psychotic disorders in vulnerable people, decreased memory and learning abilities, and decreased motivation in areas such as study, work and concentration. Whether these effects will occur with chronic use of medicinal cannabis is not yet known.

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What is the current legal status of medicinal cannabis?

Amendments to the Narcotics Drugs Act 1967 to allow the controlled cultivation of cannabis for medicinal or scientific purposes under a national licensing scheme came into operation on 30 October 2016. The Commonwealth Government is responsible for issuing licences and permits under this scheme.

These amendments do not legalise the growing or use of cannabis for non-medical purposes nor do they legalise the cultivation of cannabis or its use outside of regulated medicinal purposes. They also do not make cannabis products available over the counter without a prescription from an authorised specialist medical practitioner.

Commonwealth scheduling changes to medicinal cannabis in effect from 1 November 2016, mean certain cannabis products are Schedule 8 medicines (controlled drugs) when used for medicinal purposes, in accordance with the Narcotics Drugs Act 1967 and the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989.These medicinal cannabis products are prescription only medicines in the same schedule as medicines such as morphine and oxycodone.

South Australia adopts the Commonwealth scheduling and from 1 November 2016, medical practitioners in South Australia can legally prescribe medicinal cannabis products with Commonwealth and relevant State approvals.

The State Government has released a patient access pathway (PDF 153KB) to clarify access.

Medicinal cannabis is lawful when the cultivation, manufacture, prescribing, and supply complies with all applicable Commonwealth and State laws.

All other types of cannabis remain prohibited.

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Does legislation that deals with medicinal cannabis mean that it is now legal to smoke cannabis?

No, cannabis remains a highly regulated drug in Australia and its use and supply is controlled by a number of Commonwealth, State and Territory laws.Patients will not be able to access medicinal cannabis products for smoking.

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Do the legislative changes mean I can now grow my own medicinal cannabis legally?

No, people cannot legally grow their own cannabis for medicinal use; even it has been prescribed for them by an authorised medical practitioner.

Throughout Australia, it remains illegal to cultivate cannabis or manufacture cannabis products. The only exception will be where cultivation and manufacture is done under a licence and a permit granted under the Commonwealth licensing scheme for medicinal use.

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Who can prescribe medicinal cannabis?

The conditions for which medicinal cannabis might be considered will likely be complex medical conditions and as such, prescribing of medicinal cannabis is restricted to specialist medical practitioners with expertise in the management of the disease being treated. In certain circumstances, authority may be granted to a general practitioner where written support for treatment is provided by the patient’s treating specialist.

To prescribe or supply an unregistered medicinal cannabis product requires Commonwealth approval. State authority is not required to prescribe Schedule 8 medicinal cannabis unless it is being prescribed for longer than 2 months or to patient already prescribed a Schedule 8 drug for a period exceeding 2 months, and for any person the medical practitioner reasonably believes to be dependent on drugs.

Exemptions apply for patients aged over 70 years of age and Notified Palliative Care Patients.

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How will patients obtain medicinal cannabis?

Following the Commonwealth legislative changes in 2016, medicinal cannabis products for therapeutic use that meet the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) standards will be considered for use on prescription in South Australia when prescribed by a medical practitioner with the required approvals, and dispensed by a pharmacist.

Currently there are no medicinal cannabis products lawfully manufactured in Australia and only a limited number of products lawfully made overseas that might be approved for import. Commonwealth legislative changes provide for the cultivation and manufacture of Australian produced medicinal cannabis products.

The Commonwealth Office of Drug Control has recently made changes to allow approved importers of medicinal cannabis products to hold supplies of medicinal cannabis products in Australia so that they may be available in a more timely fashion. It is envisaged that these imports will provide a temporary solution to improve the timeliness of supply while the domestic cultivation and manufacture scheme comes into effect.

Medicinal cannabis products will not be available over the counter and patients will not be able to access medicinal cannabis products for smoking.

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How long will it take before medicinal cannabis products are on the market?

Currently there are no medicinal cannabis products lawfully manufactured in Australia and only a limited number of products lawfully made overseas that might be approved for import.

Medicinal cannabis products made from Australian‑grown cannabis crops could be available in 2017. Which products become available will depend on product safety and quality, medical research, and commercial producers.

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What is the Government of South Australia doing?

The South Australian Government is committed to ensuring South Australian consumers have access to the optimal range of safe and effective treatments and services to promote the best health outcomes for patients and the community.South Australia is contributing to a national approach that is based on evidence and clinical assessment.

South Australia adopts the Commonwealth scheduling and from 1 November 2016, medical practitioners in South Australia can legally prescribe medicinal cannabis products with relevant Commonwealth and State approvals.

A consultation process was undertaken with medical practitioners and key interested parties to develop the details of an access pathway in South Australia that is evidence‑based and gives patients safe and legal access to high quality medicinal cannabis products.

The State Government has released a patient access pathway (PDF 153KB) to clarify access.

The Government of South Australia does not have a role in issuing licences or permits for the cultivation of medicinal cannabis.

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Will medicinal cannabis products be subsidised under the Commonwealth Government’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme?

Medicinal cannabis products are not currently subsidised under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).

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Where can I find more information about medicinal cannabis in South Australia?

For more information about the Commonwealth licensing scheme for licences and permits, visit the Office of Drug Control website.

For more information about access to medicinal cannabis products visit the Therapeutic Goods Administration website.

To apply for an authority to prescribe medicinal cannabis in South Australia, medical practitioners can complete the application form (PDF 2MB). For more information about requirements under the South Australian Controlled Substances legislation, contact the Drugs of Dependence Unit on telephone 1300 652 584.

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What about cannabidiol?

One cannabis derivative, cannabidiol in preparations for therapeutic use containing 2% or less of other cannabinoids found in cannabis, is a Schedule 4 medicine. Supply of unregistered Schedule 4 cannabidiol medicines requires a prescription from a medical practitioner and approval from the Commonwealth to prescribe and if necessary, import. An authority for purposes of South Australian Controlled Substances legislation is not required to prescribe Schedule 4 cannabidiol medicines.

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