Medicinal cannabis 101

A quick introduction to the use of cannabis as a medicine

Medical cannabis what s the real deal?

Medicinal cannabis (or medical marijuana) is a hot topic at the moment. There are a lot of claims out there cannabis can cure cancer, it relieves pain and nausea in cancer patients, and it helps control spasticity in people with Multiple Sclerosis. It seems like there is no end to cannabis s magical properties. But what s the real deal? What can medicinal cannabis really do?

Hasn t medicinal cannabis been around for hundreds of years?

Cannabis as a form of medicine has been around for a long time. It was used as a medicine for various illnesses and health issues in North America and Europe in the 1800s. Doctors stopped using cannabis as a medicine at the beginning of the 20th century as it was difficult to control its dose and often led to unwanted (or no) effects. Nowadays, medicinal cannabis is back in the limelight, particularly as some states in the USA have recently made crude cannabis legal for medicinal use. And while we ve come a long way in how we can prepare cannabis we now have pharmaceutical preparations unfortunately the research hasn t kept up with the pace.

What exactly is medicinal cannabis?

The term medicinal cannabis (or medical marijuana) can be really confusing. Many of us are not sure what the difference is between the drug you get from a dealer down the road, and the medical version that has all the reported healing properties. In addition, when it s reported in the media, sometimes it looks just like a joint, and other times it looks like a capsule or mouth spray. (Check out our handy medical cannabis video that lays out what medical cannabis is, in a way everyone can understand!).

Part of the basis for the confusion is that in some countries (and even in Australia illegally), crude cannabis is used for a therapeutic purpose, even though it doesn t seem like other typical medicines we know. Likewise, cannabis oil is also sold as a treatment (illegally in Australia). At the other end of the scale, pharmaceutically prepared medicines derived from components of the cannabis plant have also been developed (only available by special access in Australia). In essence, when the media reports on medical cannabis, most often they are referring to crude cannabis or cannabis oil.

The downside of crude cannabis as medicine

There are a range of issues associated with the use of crude cannabis and cannabis oil as a medicine, most importantly, the dose and potency isn t regulated and tested, and further research is needed into side effects. This means it s a difficult drug for doctors to prescribe as they can t accurately weigh up the risk and benefits for their patients.

The benefits of pharmaceutical preparations

The other type of medicinal cannabis, the pharmaceutical preparations, are derived from the cannabis plant but the active components of cannabis are altered to maximise the drug s therapeutic benefit and minimise its side effects that is, to make the most of the good parts, and get rid of the rest.

There are several reasons why pharmaceutically prepared medicinal cannabis may be a better option than crude cannabis:

  • The dose and strength of the preparation can be controlled, regulated and tested.
  • The route of administration isn t smoking (with all of smoking s well known risks).
  • The active components in cannabis (such as THC and CBD) have been adjusted so the medication can maximise the medicinal benefit and minimise the risk to patients.
  • There is currently no published gold standard human research into the medical benefits of smoking whole plant cannabis. There are, however, several studies into the medicinal effects of pharmaceutically prepared medicinal cannabis (although more long-term research is needed).

What do we know about how it works?

One of the biggest issues with medical cannabis, in any form, is that there hasn t been a great deal of quality research undertaken to confirm the medical uses, or to identify short-term and long-term side effects. From the studies that have been conducted, pharmaceutical preparations have been used with some success to treat spasticity in Multiple Sclerosis patients, withdrawal symptoms in people addicted to cannabis and some forms of pain. In some cases, side-effects seemed to outweigh benefits, and more research is required to confirm how effective it is compared to existing medicines. Of particular note, despite claims, there has been no research to validate the claim that cannabis can cure cancer.

Trials are currently underway using cannabidiol (CBD, a part of cannabis) to treat some forms of epilepsy and NSW is also looking at wider trials. As yet, no gold standard trials have been conducted with whole smoked plant.

How can I access medicinal cannabis in Australia?

There are some Australians who are desperately in search of treatment options for themselves or loved ones, including children. As seen through tests of cannabis oil purchased online, the reported contents of drugs and other substances purchased on the internet are not always reliable. While some medicinal cannabis suppliers may genuinely want to help people, others are out to make money.

While the dangers, just like the contents, of some of these bottles are unknown, cannabis alone has been linked to long-term side effects such as memory and motivation problems, depression, anxiety, psychosis, schizophrenia and respiratory illnesses. Self-medicating can be dangerous and unpredictable, so always consult a doctor if existing treatments don t seem to be working.

Medicinal cannabis is currently not readily accessible in Australia, although several government authorities are in the process of reviewing its effectiveness and deciding whether to make it available as a treatment for some specific conditions in the future. At the moment, there is a possibility that the Therapeutical Goods Administration (TGA) may grant Australians access to a form of medicinal cannabis in exceptional circumstances. For more information please visit the TGA website.

If you want more detailed information about medical cannabis, try our medical cannabis online centre, or our research paper.