Note: In this article we’ll use the terms marijuana and cannabis interchangeably. We’ll be explaining this in a future article called cannabis vs marijuana. The actual word for both medical and recreational (adult use) cannabis is cannabis.
Recap & Overview
In part 1 of our guide to medicinal cannabis in Australia, you learnt the definition of medical cannabis, types of cannabis you can be prescribed (THC and CBD) and the legalities of medical cannabis. Because medicinal marijuana is still relatively new there are lots of misconceptions about what medical conditions the TGA has approved for cannabis use and what conditions medicinal cannabis has been clinically proven to treat. For example, when people think of cannabis consumption they often think of smoking, however, inhalation is actually the least preferred method of medical marijuana administration.
If you’re going to approach your doctor about prescribing cannabis for a condition, it’s important you have all the facts. One of the challenges in Australia is that in many cases, patients actually know more about medicinal cannabis than their doctors. To make sure you’re well informed and can talk to your healthcare professional, in this article we answer the following questions:
- What conditions are medical cannabis prescribed for in Australia?
- What medical conditions is medical marijuana proven to treat?
- Who should not be using cannabis?
- What are the delivery methods of medicinal cannabis?
- What are the side effects of medicinal cannabis?
Answers to the questions listed above will give you a good idea as to whether it might be worth speaking to your doctor about cannabis for whatever condition you’re facing. If you or your doctor is interested in the science or lack of science behind medicinal cannabis there are links to a few studies. In some cases, it might be beneficial to bring that information to your doctor when you see them to discuss cannabis.
The goal here is that by the time you finish this section of our guide to medicinal cannabis, you’ll know whether your condition has been approved for medicinal cannabis in the past, whether there’s science behind the treatment and you’ll know exactly what you’re in for if accepted to be treated with cannabis. And, off you go…
What conditions are medicinal cannabis prescribed for in Australia?
Since medical cannabis became legal in Australia in 2016, the list of approved medical conditions has grown substantially. There is no official list of medical conditions that the TGA approves cannabis for 100% of the time. And, in many therapeutic cases, more research needs to be done to prove the benefits of cannabis. The following is a current list (of conditions for cannabis treatment) that the TGA has approved medicinal marijuana for in the past:
- Anorexia and wasting associated with chronic illness ( such as cancer)
- Autism symptoms
- Cancer pain
- Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
- Chronic infection
- Chronic pain
- Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome
- Epilepsy / Seizure management
- Neuropathic pain
- Opioid dependence
- Palliative care
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Polymyalgia Rheumatica
- Post CVA Neuropathy
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Spasticity from neurological conditions
Which medical conditions are medical marijuana clinically proven to treat?
While cannabis is prescribed for a large number of conditions, there are very few scientifically-proven benefits of marijuana for medical purposes. The following is a shortlist of the scientific benefits and medical reasons for cannabis prescription:
|Clinically Proven||Reduction of seizures in childhood epilepsy||Department of Neurology, NYU Langone School of Medicine research|
– Chronic Pain
– Nausea and Vomiting during Chemotherapy
– Spasticity in Multiple Sclerosis
National Academies of Science, Engineering & Medicine’s research
Improving sleep in those with sleep disturbance related to chronic pain
|National Academies of Science, Engineering & Medicine’s research|
There is further research underway for many other conditions, including a 2019 trial in Australia related to PTSD for veterans.
Who should not be using cannabis?
While we can only recommend using cannabis when prescribed by a doctor, people who meet the following characteristics should not be using cannabis according to the TGA:
- People with psychotic, mood or anxiety disorders.
- Women who are pregnant, planning to be pregnant or breastfeeding.
- People with cardiovascular diseases.
What are the normal delivery methods of medicinal cannabis?
Traditionally, when you think of marijuana you think of smoking. However, administration of medicinal cannabis happens in various ways. In fact, smoking is one of the least prescribed forms of administration. There are three main ways in which patients use medicinal cannabis:
- Skin (transdermal)
When prescribed orally, you’ll either be taking cannabis in a pill form or oil form for which you’ll put drops underneath your tongue. When prescribed for a transdermal application, the medicine is absorbed through your skin and targets a specific area. Inhalation can be done by smoking or vaporising cannabis.
The form in which medications come in usually fall under one of the following categories:
- Bud (flower)
- Capsules (usually liquid)
- Mucosal spray
- Transdermal – patches or gels
Your doctor will be able to tell you which method and form will work best for your condition.
What are the side effects of medical cannabis?
Medical marijuana, like marijuana for adult use (recreational), is a drug and is likely to have some side effects. Because medical cannabis is highly regulated, the symptoms may be less severe and more controlled. CBD only medical cannabis is likely to have fewer side effects because it is the non-psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis. Here’s a list of the negative side effects of medical cannabis:
- A disconnected state (dissociation)
- Dry eyes
- Dry mouth
- Increased or decreased appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Paranoid thinking
Further to the above, cannabis products that are high in THC may have some of the following side effects:
- Cognitive distortion (having thoughts that are not true)
- Feeling dissatisfied
- Feeling high
- paranoid delusions
Long term side effects of cannabis are still being researched however the following two medical conditions have been scientifically documented:
- cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome – in very few cases and mainly when cannabis is taken orally and enters the digestive tract over a prolonged period of time.
- Respiratory infection or other respiratory conditions – when inhaled regularly
Now you know all about the conditions cannabis can and does treat and the administration methods for medical marijuana. While cannabis has limited conditions that it’s clinically proven to treat, there is a large list of conditions for which cannabis shows strong therapeutic indications and are therefore approved by the TGA in Australia.
Remember that cannabis is not a cure-all and has different effects on individuals and therefore each individual’s treatment program will vary. Your doctor will prescribe a type of cannabis, dosage and method for consumption to suit your medical needs. In the next section of our guide to medical cannabis, you’ll learn how to access medical marijuana.
In the final section of our guide to medical cannabis in Australia you’ll learn about the different ways you can access the medicine and how laws around medical marijuana access differ by state.
If you found this article useful and know someone else who might need more information on medical cannabis, we’d encourage you to share this resource so others may benefit too.