Over 130 conditions have already been approved for prescriptions, but many doctors and patients are still unsure about how to access medical cannabis treatments.
In this article we’ll help you understand your options and eligibility when it comes to accessing medical cannabis as a patient in Australia.
What is medicinal cannabis?
Medicinal cannabis (also referred to as ‘medical marijuana’) is any cannabis product approved for therapeutic use and prescribed by a doctor to alleviate the symptoms of a medical condition. One of the main differences between prescribed cannabis products and recreational cannabis, which is often used to self-medicate, is that prescriptions are made with individual patients' needs and symptoms in mind. Because recreational cannabis is unregulated in Australia, you won't have transparency around the origins, cannabinoid content, quality or safety of what you're consuming. But because medical cannabis is highly regulated in Australia, all prescribed cannabis treatments available to Australians have passed stringent tests for quality, content and safety. Meaning you'll know exactly what you're getting and how it can help with your individual symptoms and medical condition/s.
In Australia, medicinal cannabis mostly fits into three categories – mainly CBD, mainly THC, and a mix of CBD and THC. These are the main chemical compounds found in cannabis plants that are most commonly used for medicinal purposes, though other ingredients – like terpenes and flavonoids – are also important.
While recreational cannabis use (any use of cannabis without a prescription) remains illegal in all states and territories except ACT, medical cannabis is legal in every state in Australia.
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, your doctor must gain approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration — the regulatory body that doctors apply to when seeking approval for patient 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 obtain 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 whether medicinal cannabis would be beneficial for you.
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:
- You have a chronic medical condition – (e.g. 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 doctor can write a prescription for you after assessing your eligibility, medical condition/s, and other treatments you have tried. The Special Access Scheme allows your doctor to obtain approval to prescribe medicinal cannabis from the Therapeutics Goods Administration (TGA). Once the TGA approves your doctor’s request, your doctor can organise access to treatments 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.
If you are unsure whether your current GP can help you access medicinal cannabis, you can make an appointment to speak with one of our expert Polln practitioners who are experienced in prescribing medicinal cannabis treatments.
An Authorised Prescriber (AP) is a doctor who 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.
One of the benefits of taking this pathway is that APs are experts in prescribing medicinal cannabis and can write prescriptions as soon as they have assessed your eligibility – this means you’ll experience none of the wait time associated with other cannabis access pathways, such as the SAS pathway. 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.
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.
Medical Cannabis Cards
Unlike patients in the USA and some other countries, Australian patients do not need, nor will they receive, a ‘medical marijuana card’ to access medical cannabis. Instead, Australian patients simply need to obtain a prescription from a healthcare professional using one of the above pathways to access medicinal cannabis treatments. Your prescription will allow you to access the specific medications you have been prescribed, and will be an important document to have handy incase you need to verify your legal patient status to law enforcement while on the move.
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, note that it can take between 24–72 hours for your doctor to get a response from the TGA before your script can be provided to you or your treatments made available.
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:
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.
Check your eligibility.
Consider which option is best for you – GPs, Authorised Prescribers, or clinical trials.
Prepare to reach out. Once you’ve done your research and chosen your access pathway, it’s time to reach out to a doctor, Authorised Prescriber or an organisation running clinical trials for medicinal cannabis. To chat with an expert prescriber, you can sign up as a Polln patient or reach out to our Care Team who can provide additional support and guidance.
Increasing access for patients in Australia
As the industry has expanded, we've seen and continue to see the following positive changes in the medical cannabis industry:
- More doctors and patients are learning about the pathways to accessing 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
- Clinical trials are increasing
At Polln, our biggest mission is to make natural alternatives like medicinal cannabis more accessible to the patients who need them. That's why all of our services are designed to be as accessible as possible, with no hidden costs or surprises down the track. Access video consultations, expert advice from Authorised Prescribers, treatment delivery services and ongoing care from wherever you are. All online and Australia-wide. Learn more or sign up as a patient today.