Who qualifies for medical cannabis in Australia?
Even though medical cannabis has been legal Australia-wide since 2016, many people still don’t understand if they meet the qualifications for medical cannabis.
While information about access is becoming more available on the web, most of the information is convoluted and unclear.
There’s also a misconception that medical cannabis is a last resort (meaning, you must exhaust all other available treatments before you’re eligible for medical cannabis). This is not correct. At the inquiry into medical cannabis access, Professor John Skerrit, a Department Secretary and The Department of Health and representative of the TGA said:
I want to clarify: it’s not that all other options have been exhausted. This is the Special Access Scheme for unapproved medicines, there is the requirement in law that they have to explain what they’ve tried, and it (cannabis) would generally not be seen as first line. We have heard today incorrectly that this scheme is only for if every other single medicine has been exhausted…
In this article there’s one goal. By the time you finish reading you should be able to answer the question, “Am I eligible for medical marijuana (cannabis)?”
To determine your eligibility for medical cannabis, there are three simple questions you must ask.
- Do you have a chronic medical condition or conditions that may be treated by cannabis?
- Have you tried other treatments for your medical condition(s)?
- Types of treatment that count.
- Have those treatments ‘failed’ to provide relief of symptoms from your medical condition?
We’ll also answer the question:
If you’d like to visualise the process you can jump to the medical cannabis eligibility decision tool infographic below.
Now we’ll give you context for how to answer each question.
Do you have a chronic medical condition or conditions that may be treated by cannabis?
A list of approved conditions for medical cannabis in Australia
Medical cannabis is approved to be prescribed for over 50 conditions in Australia. There are a few important things to be aware of when talking to your doctor.
There’s no official list of medical conditions that the TGA approves cannabis for 100% of the time. Because of this, a doctor can technically apply for medical cannabis for any condition as long as you meet the other eligibility requirements and they can provide evidence for its treatment.
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||Ischemia|
|Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) symptoms||Neuropathic pain|
|Cancer & Cancer Pain||Palliative care|
|Cardiovascular diseases||Parkinson’s Disease|
|Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (CINV)||Polymyalgia Rheumatica|
|Chronic infection||Post CVA Neuropathy|
|Chronic pain||Psychiatric disorders (varying)|
|Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome||PTSD|
|Dystonia||Spasticity from neurological conditions|
|Epilepsy / Seizure management|
Just because your condition isn’t on this list doesn’t mean that you’re not eligible – you may still be eligible for medical cannabis.
So the two key factors here are:
- Medical condition
- Chronic (more than 3 months)
Now that you know the conditions medical cannabis has been approved to treat, let’s talk about your treatment history.
Have you tried other treatments for your medical condition(s)?
While on face value this question seems obvious, it’s actually not as black and white as you’d think. People often ask, is one other treatment enough? Do over the counter medications count? What if I’m worried about side effects and I don’t want to try certain medications.
Cannabis is not a first or even second-line treatment in Australia. However, you don’t have to have exhausted all other treatments. You simply must have tried multiple treatments. Now you’re thinking, “Is three enough?”. The answer is that if you’ve tried three or more treatments, pharmacological or a mix of pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments, and you’re still struggling, you’re likely eligible.
Types of treatments that count
It’s important to understand that both pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments may count as other treatments.
Let’s use an example. If a doctor wanted to prescribe opioids but you didn’t want to take them due to a fear of side effects, and you tested other herbal treatments instead, that may count. If you’re suffering from a mental health issue like anxiety but you’re concerned with side effects of an antidepressant, meditation and other herbal medications may count.
The takeaway here is that pharmacological treatments are not the only treatments that count.
Have those treatments ‘failed’ to provide relief of symptoms or caused unbearable side effects?
Answering this question is not black and white either. Remember that, in answering these questions, your doctor will need to build a case for why you’re moving on to medical cannabis.
When thinking about your eligibility, you can answer this question in two ways:
- Why have the other medications not worked?
- Why were other medications not tolerable for you?
Answering why medications haven’t worked is pretty straightforward. Did a medication relieve the symptoms of your condition or improve your quality of life? If the answer to that is no then explain why. Did the medication cause serious or intolerable side effects, explain why.
Another way to look at a failure of treatment relates to intolerance to a medication and the route of natural therapies. There are scenarios where a medication may help treat a condition or symptoms but have bad side effects. If your side effects outweigh benefits then continuing the medication is not an option. Therefore that treatment has been ruled out due to side effects.
In other cases, the TGA will look at a genuine concern of side effects along with other treatments as a failure of other treatments. You can’t simply say that you’re worried about the side effects of other drugs and start cannabis, you truly must have tried other therapies.
If I have a history of substance abuse or dependence, am I still eligible for medical cannabis?
The answer is possibly. Having a history of substance abuse doesn’t rule you out from being eligible for medical cannabis. But, it may make it harder for you to get access. If you are in this boat and meet all the other criteria, it’s going to be best to talk to your GP or a cannabis specialist about your case.
Bringing it together
In conclusion, there is no ‘formula’ for whether you’re eligible, however, if you have read this article and believe you’re ticking the boxes by answering the three questions above, then you’re likely eligible for a medical cannabis prescription in Australia. Eligibility is the same in each state, however, access pathways vary slightly in some states.
Due to how taboo cannabis still is in Australia the journey to becoming a patient isn’t always easy. We hope that this has helped clarify your eligibility and wish you all the best on your journey.
After reading this article, if you’re still unsure we’d recommend talking to your GP or another medical specialist about it. If your GP isn’t able (or interested) in helping you then it might be worth looking for an experienced local prescriber or cannabis clinic. You may also want to learn more about how to talk to your doctor about medicinal cannabis.