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.

What is medical marijuana and is it legal in Australia?

The cannabis landscape is changing in Australia and world wide. While Australia’s cannabis industry might feel far behind our friends in America, medicinal cannabis is legal here and the space is active and growing rapidly. There are some serious benefits of cannabis being so tightly regulated in Australia. One of the best things is that it means that prescribed cannabis is has been tested, is high quality, and is as safe as cannabis comes.

In this section of our guide to medicinal cannabis you’ll learn what medical cannabis is, how it differs from adult-use cannabis (recreational cannabis), what types of medicinal cannabis there are and the legalities of medicinal cannabis in Australia. If you have limited time, we recommend you jump straight to the conclusion or that you bookmark the page and come back later.

The definition of medical cannabis

medical vs recreational cannabis australia facts

Medicinal cannabis is any cannabis product prescribed, by a doctor, to relieve the symptoms of a medical condition. So, medicinal cannabis is prescribed, whereas recreational (adult-use cannabis) is obtained without a prescription. However, a study from the USA has shown that a large number of individuals use cannabis without a prescription to medicate themselves.

What is the difference between medical and recreational (or adult use) cannabis?

The main difference between medicinal and recreational cannabis is transparency into the origins, quality and regulation of what you consume. 

To liken it to something we’re familiar with. Medicinal cannabis is like buying a bottle of Shiraz from the shop. Shiraz is wine made from particular grapes; the ingredients are listed on the label, you know what region it is from, and the alcohol percentage. You’re pretty confident you know what you’re getting.

Recreational (adult use) cannabis is like buying a bottle of moonshine from your neighbour; it comes in an unmarked jar, you’re not sure what it’s made from, or what effect it will have when you drink it. It’s a bit of a gamble.

The second way the two differ has to do with the cannabinoids. Because medicinal cannabis products are so tightly regulated, particularly in Australia, many medical cannabis products often have isolated useful cannabinoids. These chemicals have been refined naturally to minimise side effects which may occur when using the plant from a non-regulated source. Depending on the medical condition, your doctor’s diagnosis and treatment plan, the medical cannabis product you receive may contain various levels of cannabinoids.

What types of medical cannabis are there?

Medical marijuana may have one or more active ingredients and may come in a range of different delivery forms when prescribed by your health care professional. The active chemicals will depend on the type of medical condition or conditions being treated.

Let’s use an example to explain.

Imagine you have a headache. You may want to take Panadol because it will stop the pain. Now imagine you have strained a muscle. While Panadol might help with the pain, it doesn’t contain an anti-inflammatory, so you might instead be recommended Voltaren. It’s the same with cannabis. With that in mind, let’s look at what types of medical cannabis, and their ingredients, are available in Australia.

The active ingredients in medicinal cannabis

The active medicinal ingredients in cannabis are called cannabinoids. There are hundreds of cannabinoids in the plant; however, the two most well known and mainly responsible for medicinal treatment are CBD and THC. While both have medicinal properties and some of those properties overlap, there are differences in the cannabinoids. One of the most common questions is, “Does medical marijuana contain THC?” In Australia, there are three major types or categories of medicinal cannabis:

  • Mainly CBD
  • Mainly THC
  • CBD & THC Combined

CBD (cannabidiol), is one of the non-psychoactive cannabinoids in the cannabis plant and provides medicinal properties. It has also been found to reduce the ‘high’ feeling that THC provides.

THC (Delta-9-tetrahydrocannibinol), is the psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis which is responsible for other medicinal properties.

There is research underway to confirm whether when combined, THC and CBD have a synergy which has more beneficial effects as a medicine (the entourage effect).

Chemicals in medical cannabis

But, cannabis is a scheduled substance

This means that you can’t just go get cannabis over the counter. It also means that there is some very heavy regulation on how a patient can access medical cannabis. Cannabis is categorised as a scheduled substance and sits under three headings:

  1. Cannabis and tetrahydrocannabinols (S8 – controlled drugs) – these products are the cannabis sativa plant, a part of the plant (ie. bud or seeds), or extracted THC.
  2. Cannabidiol (S4 – prescription only) – CBD is extracted from the plant and contains 2% or less of other cannabinoids.
  3. Other substances (S8 – controlled drugs) – these are pharmaceuticals: nabiximols, nabilone and dronabinol.

In Australia specifically, the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) regulates medicinal cannabis and must approve all applications for the use of medicinal cannabis.


Medical cannabis is a heavily regulated, scheduled drug. For most therapeutic purposes more research needs to be conducted. Medical cannabis is legal and may be accessed through your doctor or a specialist. For more information about accessing cannabis in your state jump to section 3 – accessing medical cannabis.

You may get prescribed CBD, THC or a THC/CBD combination medication depending on the condition being treated. If you’re going to use cannabis as a medication, it’s important that you speak with your medical professional to make sure that medical cannabis is right for you.

If you found this article useful, please pass it on to a friend, family member or your social community to give them more knowledge on medical cannabis in Australia. In the next section, you’ll learn about the conditions that medical marijuana is being prescribed for and the potential side effects.