Medicinal cannabis products FAQs

While there’s a lot of interest in medicinal cannabis, there’s a lot of confusion about it too.
Here we cut through the confusion by answering some commonly asked questions.

Medicinal cannabis products use chemicals found in the cannabis plant to treat or relieve illness and health conditions.

Like other medicines, medicinal cannabis products are legally produced to strict quality standards and taken as directed by a medical practitioner.

These products contain known doses and concentrations of the active chemicals, that are adjusted to increase the medical benefits and reduce potential side effects.1

Illegally produced cannabis also comes from the cannabis plant, but there’s no control over the type or amount of active chemicals produced.

For some people with prolonged or terminal illnesses, conventional medicines don’t work, or don’t work as effectively as medicinal cannabis products.

Also, for some patients, conventional medicines may work but may also cause debilitating side effects that medicinal cannabis products can help relieve.

Some conditions that medicinal cannabis products are commonly prescribed for include:

  • chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
  • epilepsy in children
  • chronic pain
  • multiple sclerosis
  • palliative (end-of-life) care
  • cancer-related anorexia.

THC and CBD are cannabinoids.

The word cannabinoid refers to every chemical substance, regardless of structure or origin, that joins the cannabinoid receptors of the body and brain and that have similar effects to those produced by the Cannabis Sativa plant. Research has found that the cannabis plant produces between 80 and 100 cannabinoids and about 300 non-cannabinoid chemicals.

The two main cannabinoids used in cannabis products are:

  • delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
  • cannabidiol (CBD).2

The main difference between the two is that THC has strong psychoactive effects, meaning it makes a person ‘high’.
CBD is thought to have an anti-psychoactive effect that controls or moderates the ‘high’ caused by the THC. CBD is also thought to reduce some of the other negative effects that people can experience from THC, such as anxiety.

THC and CBD can be used together, or on their own, in different medicinal cannabis products. For example, CBD-only products are often used to manage childhood epilepsy and seizures. Any product containing CBD only cannot produce a ‘high’.

If you’re interested in using medicinal cannabis products for an existing medical condition, the first step is to talk with your GP or specialist.

If your doctor believes medicinal cannabis treatment is right for you, they can apply online to the Therapeutic Goods Administration for approval to access it. This formal process usually takes 24-48 hours.

Once approved, your doctor completes a prescription that can be dispensed at an authorised pharmacy.

Access clinics are another option.

These clinics are staffed by registered Australian doctors who specialise in treating patients with medicinal cannabis products. Many of these clinics provide both in-clinic and telehealth services that can be accessed through their websites.

A list of cannabis access clinics around Australia is available here.

You may also be able to access medicinal cannabis products through a clinical trial, if your condition is currently being studied and you meet the study inclusion criteria.

Information about current and upcoming clinical trials can be found on the Australian Clinical Trials website.

There are more than 100 different medicinal cannabis products available in Australia.

They can be prepared and taken in a range of ways including vaporising, oils and liquid capsules, pro-mucosal sprays (taken under the tongue), or topically (applied to the skin).

Smoking medicinal cannabis products is not recommended in any form - it’s difficult to track how much cannabinoid has been ingested and smoking of any kind can damage the lungs and increase the risk of cancer, heart disease and other health conditions.

Like any other medicine, patients treated with medicinal cannabis can also experience undesirable side effects. Some of the more common ones include:

  • appetite change
  • mood change
  • diarrhoea
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • nausea
  • weight gain or loss
  • difficulty concentrating
  • dizziness
  • loss of balance
  • problems with thinking and memory.

Smoking is a particularly harmful way of taking cannabis, mainly because cancer-causing substances are inhaled directly into the lungs.

Secondly, the majority of medicines used in Australia are produced under strict conditions. That way, doctors who are prescribing them (as well as people who are using them) know exactly what’s in them.

If you use recreational cannabis to help with a medical condition, you can’t be sure how strong it is or what mix of chemicals is actually in it. Consequently, one dose will never be the same as another and use of any recreational cannabis product will always carry some risk.

  1. Arnold J. A primer on medicinal cannabis safety and potential adverse effects. Australian Journal for General Practitioners. 2021;50:345-50.
  2. Stith SS, Vigil JM, Brockelman F, Keeling K, Hall B. The Association between Cannabis Product Characteristics and Symptom Relief. Scientific Reports. 2019;9(1):2712.