Medical cannabis FAQ

Need answers fast? Check out our quick FAQ on medical cannabis. Questions are based on those we often get asked by students undertaking school assignments.  


 

1. What exactly is medical cannabis?

There’s no universal definition of ‘medical cannabis’, ‘medicinal cannabis’, or ‘cannabis used for medical purposes’ so these terms can mean different things to different people, or in different countries.

'Medical cannabis' may refer to the products people buy illegally from friends or dealers that they use to self-medicate. It can also refer to cannabis oil that is produced from the Cannabis Sativa plant (though sometimes these products, when purchased illegally, contain no cannabis at all!). Medical cannabis might also describe special preparations made in laboratories by pharmacists or scientists.

Scientists are able to separate the components that make up cannabis and isolate the ‘cannabinoids’ that might help with some medical conditions, while reducing the other cannabinoids that make people high or don't help. To read more about the components of cannabis see our factsheet on cannabinoids here.

For more information check out our mythbusters about medical cannabis and our handy animated medical cannabis video featuring Dr Pete.

2. Is medical cannabis legal in Australia?

No. As of August 2016, cannabis is not legal in  Australia to buy, sell, grow, have or distribute, even for medical reasons. In 2015, there were some changes to the law in states like NSW to accommodate for terminally ill people, and to pave the way for regulated, licenced grows of cannabis for medical purposes. Check out our medical cannabis timeline for more information. 

You can find out more about the exact cannabis laws in Australia here.

3. But didn’t I hear something in the news about medical cannabis in Australia?

In December 2015, NSW Premier Mike Baird announced that NSW would run trials of medical cannabis for children with severe epilepsy, adults with terminal illnesses and adults who experience nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy. For information on the NSW clinical trials of cannabis products visit the NSW Health website here.

In February 2016, Minister for Health Sussan Ley announced the amendments to the Narcotics Drugs Act 1967 to introduce a system of issuing licenses for the regulated growing of cannabis for medicinal or scientific purposes in Australia. Licenses will be issued by the Commonwealth Government and overseen by an independent advisory committee. For more information on the Australian medical cannabis legislation visit the Department of Health’s website here.

In April 2016, a new act was passed in Victorian parliament to 'enable patients in exceptional circumstances to access legal medicinal cannabis products'. This access won’t be available until 2017 and will only be for children with severe epilepsy. You can read more about the Victorian medical cannabis changes here.

For other similar events see our timeline of medical cannabis in Australia here.  

4. Who can access medical cannabis in Australia?

Currently in NSW, there are guidelines that enable NSW police officers to use their discretion not to charge adults with terminal illness who use medical cannabis to help with their symptoms, or carers who assist them. Registration is required and more information about the terminal illness cannabis scheme can be found here. 

5. How does medical cannabis work in America?

In the US most ‘medical marijuana’ is purchased in dispensaries and is not much different from the cannabis you would buy and sell on the street anyway. There’s not always systems in place to test it for the level of cannabinoids or to see if it contains pesticides and fertilisers. Recently, some products have been recalled for this reason. So – the only real difference is it’s being sold to be used for medical reasons.

Often people buy their medical marijuana in edible forms – such as in cookies, cakes, milks and ice-creams. The danger with this is it takes a long time for the active ingredients to affect the brain and people often have too much in the meantime – thinking it hasn’t worked. This can result in people feeling really anxious, paranoid or being physically sick. For more information check out our greening out help tips here and our video on how to help a friend who is greening out here.

6. What conditions can medical cannabis help with?

The pharmaceutical preparations of medical cannabis have been used in some research trials and tests and have had mixed success with particular medical conditions:

  • Patients with nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite from HIV or cancer have had some relief with cannabis
  • A pharmaceutical cannabis product known as Sativex is legal in some countries to treat spasticity in patients with Multiple Sclerosis
  • Using cannabis to relieve glaucoma is short-lived, and other treatments are better
  • Sativex, which doesn’t make users high, has been used effectively to treat people trying to quit cannabis, by helping them get through withdrawal
  • Tests using one particular cannabinoid, known as CBD, to treat seizures in certain types of epilepsy are currently underway but more research is needed
  • There are no studies that show cannabis cures cancer!

For more information on the potential medical benefits of cannabis and to see the current studies underway check out our medical cannabis research corner here.