What is medicinal cannabis?
Medicinal cannabis is a product approved for therapeutic use and prescribed by a doctor to alleviate the symptoms of medical conditions. One of the main differences between prescribed products and recreational cannabis, which is often used to self-medicate, is that prescriptions are made with individual patients needs and medical conditions in mind.
In Australia, medicinal cannabis mostly fits into three categories – CBD, THC, a mix of CBD and THC. These are the chemicals found in cannabis plants, most commonly used for medicinal purposes.
Is medicinal cannabis legal in Australia?
Medicinal cannabis has been legal Australia-wide since 2016. It is considered an ‘unapproved’ medicine, so to access it, you must gain approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration — the regulatory body that doctors apply to when seeking approval for prescriptions.
Am I eligible for medicinal cannabis?
So you’ve learnt what medical cannabis is, but are you eligible? Even though medical cannabis has been legal for over five years now, there are still many misconceptions about who can get prescriptions.
Although it is always best to learn about the process and eligibility criteria yourself, it is your prescribing doctor’s responsibility to assess your condition and decide which product would be most beneficial.
Criteria may sound like a daunting word to come up against when seeking out treatments but don’t let it scare you away. The boxes you need to check off when considering your eligibility are:
- Chronic medical condition – have your symptoms been with you for over three months?
- You have tried other treatments.
- Other treatments haven’t alleviated your symptoms or;
- Other treatments have had adverse effects, or you are concerned about the side effects of treatments suggested to you.
Pathways to access
If you’re a patient considering medicinal cannabis, there are three pathways you can take to access it:
- Special Access Scheme
- Authorised Prescriber
- Clinical trials
Special Access Scheme
Like other prescription medicines, your GP can write a prescription for you after assessing your eligibility, medical condition/s, and other treatments you have tried. The Special Access Scheme (SAS) allows your GP to obtain approval to prescribe medicinal cannabis from the Therapeutics Goods Administration (TGA). Once the TGA approve your GP’s request, they can organise access to products and write up prescriptions.
While this might sound complicated, it is the most commonly used pathway to access medicinal cannabis. Unfortunately, many GPs aren’t well informed or prepared to go through this process with patients, so this pathway might not always be accessible. Although reliable information is shared more regularly now, stigma and misinformation still get in the way of patients seeking support.
An Authorised Prescriber (AP) is a doctor that has already applied for and received the authority from the TGA to write prescriptions for specified patients. These practitioners don’t need to apply for approval from the TGA for individual patient prescriptions as they are pre-approved.
The pros when taking this pathway are that APs are experts in prescribing medicinal cannabis and can write prescriptions as soon as they have assessed your eligibility – no wait times. An issue that arises when considering this route is that it’s not always easy to know if there is an AP located near you.
At Polln, we’re breaking down this barrier. We work with APs who know how to support and guide patients through their choices. You can learn more about this process in our FAQs.
This pathway might not be the right option for everyone, but there is an urgent need for participants in clinical trials. As the demand for medicinal cannabis grows, so does the number of clinical trials.
I know my options now, but how long will this take?
Wait times will vary between each access pathway, but the fastest route is through authorised prescribers as these practitioners don’t need to wait for the TGA to approve prescriptions. If you’re looking into the SAS pathway, wait times can take up to two weeks – however, due to the development of the industry, we are now seeing approvals turned around within 24–48 hours.
How do I know where to start?
If you’ve read this article and are still feeling overwhelmed or confused – breathe. It might be daunting to begin this process, but there are guides you can follow and support you can access to help you along the way. To break this all down into simple steps:
Step 1 - Read up on facts and reliable information so you can make informed decisions. Learn about what medicinal cannabis is and how it can help you.
Step 2 - Check your eligibility.
Step 3 - Consider which option is best for you – GPs, authorised prescribers, or clinical trials.
Step 4 - Prepare to reach out. Once you’ve done your research and chosen your access pathway, you’ll have information, guides and support at your fingertips.
The medical cannabis market is thriving, and there have been many improvements since its legalisation, but there is a long way to go. Many people are still turning to black market products even though the number of legal options is growing.
As the industry has expanded, we have seen and continue to see the following positive changes:
- More doctors and patients are learning about the pathways to access medicinal cannabis
- The cost is still a barrier for potential patients, but the price is declining as more products become available
- The waiting time between seeking prescriptions and receiving products is decreasing
- Stigma around cannabis is slowly reducing
- An increase in clinical trials
We hope this article helped demystify the process of accessing medicinal cannabis in Australia – the path to prescriptions can be confusing but it shouldn’t have to be. If you think medicinal cannabis could be the right treatment for you, stay tuned to our blog. We look forward to sharing more knowledge with you as the industry develops and interest in medicinal cannabis grows.