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Medicinal Cannabis Australia: Legality, Uses, and Benefits
The medicinal benefits that the cannabis plant species has to offer continues to be uncovered. Australian medical cannabis trials and research from around the world has shown medicinal cannabis to have great potential in treating conditions and symptoms associated with chronic pain, anxiety, nausea, childhood epilepsy and a range of different autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders.
While stigma associated with marijuana and weed continues to be prevalent in some sectors there is now enough scientific evidence supporting the use of medical cannabis that this once-maligned plant is no longer treated with such contempt or disapproval.
What is medicinal cannabis?
Medicinal cannabis, sometimes referred to as medical marijuana, is the medical application of pharmaceutical-grade cannabis products. Cannabis plant species contain more than 100 different cannabinoids, many with medicinal actions not yet discovered. The two primary cannabinoids utilized for medical cannabis patients are delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
These two cannabinoids act on the human body in different ways providing management of symptoms and potentially disease progression for a variety of different illnesses.
THC is the cannabinoid responsible for the psychoactive effects typically associated with cannabis. In medical cannabis formulations, THC is postulated to be responsible for pain reduction, appetite stimulation, nausea relief, reduction in muscle spasm and a number of other actions
CBD is a non-psychoactive compound, meaning it won’t initiate feelings of euphoria or get patients ‘high’. CBD is indicated for a number of conditions and symptoms including anxiety, insomnia, pain and inflammation to name a few. It is often a preferred treatment option for medical cannabis patients in Australia due to its well-documented safety profile and minimal side effects.
Is medicinal cannabis safe for use?
The safety profile of medical cannabis formulations has been assessed in a number of clinical trials. Each formulation offers different cannabinoid profiles which impact the safety and action of the medicine.
CBD oil and CBD dominant formulations have been assessed and generally regarded as safe for in humans. Side effects of CBD are generally mild including gastrointestinal discomfort, drowsiness and dry mouth.
The safety profile of THC continues to be investigated. By and large, it is a safe compound when dosed appropriately for individual medical cannabis patients. Some individuals with specific conditions or medications may experience unwanted side effects from THC containing medicines and should always be treated under the supervision of a trained medical professional.
Side effects of THC can include dry mouth, nausea, low blood pressure, anxiety and euphoria or intoxication. There is potential for tolerance and dependence in regards to THC, this is still classified as a low risk of dependence compared with other substances and long term impacts are still being investigated.
Is medical cannabis legal in Australia?
Medical cannabis is federally legal in Australia. In October 2016, the Australian government amended laws to allow for the legal prescription of cannabis medicines.
Since legalisation, the Therapeutics Goods Administration (TGA) has approved over 46,000 medical cannabis applications (May 2020).
Patients wanting to access legal medical cannabis can go to their GP or a cannabis specialist doctor, such as those at CA Clinics. The prescribing doctor will assess each individual case for eligibility and process the medical cannabis patients application via the Special Access Scheme (SAS) pathways.
Medical cannabis can be prescribed via the Authorised Prescriber scheme, where a doctor has the approval to prescribe a specific medical cannabis product to patients within their speciality, ie oncology, paediatric epilepsy. This pathway is infrequently utilised with most medicinal cannabis prescriptions be processed through Special Access Scheme Category B (SAS-B).
Through the SAS-B pathway, medical practitioners process single applications for individual medical cannabis patients, based on their specific condition and the unregistered product that is intended to be prescribed. Approximately 98% of medical cannabis applications are processed through SAS-B.
Even though medicinal cannabis is federally legal in Australia, the majority of products are still unregistered medicines. This means the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) has not evaluated products determining their safety and efficacy to have them registered as medicines in Australia.
This means that if the product a patient is prescribed is not listed on the ARTG there are no subsidies through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme or private health cover. In the coming years, Australia can expect to see an expansion of medical cannabis formulations being registered.
Medical cannabis is legal in Australia however, sources of cannabis not prescribed by a medical professional remain illegal. THC, a psychoactive compound in cannabis, is classified as a Schedule 8 controlled substance and CBD, the other widely recognised compound in cannabis is classed as a Schedule 4 drug with no psychoactivity. Possession of these compounds in any form is illegal without a prescription.
What states have medical cannabis?
All Australian states have legal pathways access to medical cannabis through the amendment to the Narcotic Drugs Act in 2016. The pathways to access medical cannabis are the same across the country, medical cannabis patients can engage their GP or a medical cannabis clinic to see their eligibility for medical cannabis.
There are various nuances to the laws regarding medical cannabis in different states, dictating the applications needed at a state level.
What medical reasons is cannabis used for?
Medical cannabis is used to treat a wide range of conditions and symptoms. Some of the main symptoms which medical cannabis is used to treat include; chronic pain, insomnia, seizures, and in the reduction of chemotherapy-induced nausea or cachexia.
A range of mood disorders have also shown potential positive outcomes in medical cannabis trials. Conditions such as anxiety, depression and PTSD have had symptoms effectively managed with CBD oil and medical cannabis formulations. Some results have been mixed or showed dose-dependent outcomes, further research into how medical cannabis can best be applied in the treatment of mood and psychological disorders is needed.
Research shows medical cannabis may have benefit in other settings such as autoimmune conditions like Multiple Sclerosis, Irritable Bowel Diseases and Rheumatoid Arthritis.
The effects of medical cannabis, particularly CBD oil, in reducing seizures for adult and paediatric epilepsy patients has been well documented. Additionally, medical cannabis patients may find relief from sleep disturbances with the application of medical cannabis formulations.
Medical cannabis is also indicated for use in oncology patients and palliative care settings. In terms of inflammation, pain relief, reduction of nausea and positive impacts on anorexia for cancer patients and individuals at the end of their life, its proposed benefits are often comparative to other pharmaceutical treatments.
Other reasons medical cannabis is being researched for include; skin conditions such as
managing addiction to opioid drugs;and other less common conditions and symptoms.
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