July 1, 2021
Accessing medicinal cannabis
Here at the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, we are often contacted via our DrugInfo support line by people wanting more information about accessing medicinal cannabis products.
Usually we’re asked:
- how can I access medicinal cannabis products?
- can my doctor prescribe medicinal cannabis products?
- what medical conditions are eligible?
Demand for medicinal cannabis products continues to grow in Australia, with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approving almost 10,000 Special Access Scheme applications in May 2021 alone.1
The TGA is the Australian Government body that regulates access to medicinal cannabis products.2
As most medicinal cannabis products aren’t approved medicines in Australia, they are more difficult to access than other medicines.2,3
For a doctor to prescribe medicinal cannabis products, they must:
- be an authorised prescriber; or
- submit an application on behalf of their patient through the TGA’s Special Access Scheme-B.2
Steps to accessing medicinal cannabis products
Talk with your doctor
If you’re interested in medicinal cannabis products as a treatment for an existing medical condition, talk with your doctor.
If you’re eligible, your doctor will decide which cannabis product is most suitable. The TGA guidelines can help and support GPs through this process.5
Laws and regulations
It will take around two business days for your doctor to get approval from the Australian Government.5
Each state and territory has different laws and regulations about accessing medicinal cannabis products6. Your prescribing GP should check your state or territory’s health department requirements regarding this.7
Some medicinal cannabis products may be scheduled differently under the Schedule of Medicines and Poisons.
When your GP applies to the TGA through the Special Access Scheme-B, they’re required to provide detailed information about:
- the proposed form of cannabis
- its composition and formulation (CBD, THC, oils, tablets, flowers, etc.)
- adverse effects
- reason why it should be prescribed
- why they think it’s an appropriate medicine for the condition.2
Once they receive the required approvals, your GP will give you a prescription that you can have filled at a designated pharmacy.
Enquiries to GPs from patients wanting to access medicinal cannabis products are common, however some doctors may be uncomfortable discussing medicinal cannabis products.8 If this is the case, you can seek a second opinion.
What medicinal cannabis products are available?
The active ingredients in medicinal cannabis are called cannabinoids, which can be extracted from the plant or made synthetically.
The cannabinoids most commonly used in medicinal cannabis products are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).9
As of February 2021, it’s now legal to purchase low-dose CBD over the counter, as the TGA has down-scheduled the substance from a prescription-only medicine to a pharmacist-only medicine, following a safety review.10 Low dose CBD doesn’t require a prescription or TGA approval.
Most medicinal cannabis products available in Australia are imported. However, more local products will become available as the Australian medicinal cannabis industry grows.5
The majority of medicinal cannabis products currently available in Australia are unapproved, which means they haven’t been assessed by the TGA for safety, quality or effectiveness.
- Nabiximols (Sativex®) is a mouth spray currently approved for treating spasticity in multiple sclerosis and requires a prescription.9
- Cannabidiol (Epidyolexis®) is an oral liquid used for seizure control associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome for patients two years or older and also requires a prescription.9
Unapproved products that require TGA Special Access Scheme-B approval before prescribing include:
What conditions can be treated with medicinal cannabis?
Most of the approvals under the Special Access Scheme are for treating chronic non-cancer pain, such as:
- lower back pain
- neck pain
- nervous system pain.8
Other common approvals are for:
- cancer-related symptoms such as pain, nausea, and reduced appetite
What are cannabis access clinics?
Medical ‘cannabis access’ clinics are being established throughout Australia to meet the needs of people having trouble accessing unapproved medicinal cannabis products through their GP.11
The clinics are staffed by doctors who specialise in prescribing medicinal cannabis products for a fee.
A list of cannabis access clinics around Australia is available here.
Generally, cannabis access clinics provide:
- screening and assessment
- development of treatment plans
- management of regulatory approvals
- ongoing management and review.
Many of these clinics provide both in-clinic and telehealth services that can be accessed through their websites.
Anecdotal reports suggest that the fees can range from $100 - $400 for an initial consultation and between $50 - $100 for ongoing monitoring. Some clinics also require a referral from the patient’s regular doctor.
If you’re interested in finding out more, speak to your GP, or watch the Medicinal cannabis access for consumers video from the TGA.
- Therapeutic Goods Administration. Medicinal Cannabis: Role of the TGA: Australian Government Department of Health.
- Sydney University Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics. How to get medicinal cannabis n.d. [cited: 09.06.2021].
- Australian Government Department of Health The Therapeutic Goods Administration. Medicinal cannabis: Information for consumers 2020 [cited: 10.06.2021].
- Victorian State Government. Medicinal Cannabis Information for health professionals 2020 [cited: 10.06.2021].
- Victorian State Government. Access to medicinal cannabis in Victoria - Information for patients and carers 2019 [cited: 09.06.2021].
- NPS MedicineWise. Medicinal cannabis: what you need to know 2021 [cited: 11.06.2021].
- Australian Government Theraputic Goods Administration. Access to medicinal cannabis products: using access schemes 2020 [cited: 22.06.20221].
- Arnold J, Nation T, McGregor I. Prescribing medicinal cannabis. Australian Prescriber 2020;43(5).
- Sydney University Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics. What medicinal cannabis products are available? n.d. [cited: 10.06.2021].
- Australian Government Theraputic Goods Administration. Over-the-counter access to low dose cannabidiol 2020 [cited: 22.06.2021].
- Martin J et al. Ensuring access to safe, effective, and affordable cannabis based medicines. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 2020;86:630–4.