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The differences between Legal & Illegal Cannabis in Australia

We're answering your questions about accessing medical cannabis in Australia so you can make informed decisions about what you’re buying when it comes to your health.


Emily Osborne – Polln

medically reviewed by


table of contents
min read

The medical cannabis system in Australia hasn’t always been easy to navigate. With many still finding the pathways to accessing medicinal cannabis confusing and frustrating, and with Australian medical and legal attitudes towards cannabis being somewhat behind those of other countries, it’s no surprise that people are still turning to illegal pathways to access their cannabis products. 

While recreational cannabis remains illegal in all states and territories except the ACT, medical cannabis is legal Australia-wide. Medicinal cannabis is any cannabis product prescribed by a qualified doctor to relieve the symptoms of a medical condition. And recreational cannabis is the illegal use (at the time of writing in Australia) of cannabis for any purpose, including social, pleasure, creativity, relaxation and/or self-medication. Cannabis is sometimes also referred to as 'marijuana' – learn about the history and implications of this term here.

In this article, we’ll answer some of your questions about accessing medical cannabis in Australia so you can make informed decisions about what you’re buying when it comes to your health.

What are the differences between medical and recreational cannabis, besides how you access them?

The differences between the regulated cannabis products you can get with a prescription and the black-market products you might get from other sources run deeper than just who you get them from. The biggest differences between the two are quality, regulation, cost, and assurance and consistency regarding the active ingredients (cannabinoids) found within the product. 

Put simply: with a medicinal cannabis prescription, you might pay more, but you’ll know exactly what you’re getting. When you buy cannabis illegally, you often won’t.

This may not be an important consideration for people who use cannabis for more recreational purposes like socialising or getting high. But for those who use cannabis to relieve the symptoms of a medical condition like anxiety or chronic pain, knowing what’s in your product and what dose you should be taking can make a big difference to your health.

Because recreational cannabis is unregulated in Australia, there’s a big risk that your therapeutic goals will not be met by the product you buy without a prescription. This is because the active ingredients in unregulated products have varied concentrations, may differ from what you’ve been told they are, or in some cases may not be present at all. 

Why are active ingredients in cannabis important?

When treating a medical condition or taking cannabis for a specific purpose like relaxation or boosting creativity, it’s important to consider which cannabinoids are active within the product you’re taking. Knowing what’s in your product will help you ensure that your therapeutic or other goals are met, and that you’ll be less likely to experience any unwanted effects associated with specific cannabinoids.

In Australia, medicinal cannabis is categorised into three different types. These are:

  • Mainly THC
  • Mainly CBD
  • THC and CBD combination

How you experience your product will depend on the cannabinoids present, what dose you take, how it is taken and the quality of the product itself. For example, if your product contains mainly CBD, you won’t experience psychoactive effects. You may experience medicinal benefits such as pain or anxiety reduction, improved sleep, relaxation and/or relief from other symptoms associated with a specific medical condition. If your product contains mainly THC, you may also experience pain relief, reduced nausea or other medicinal benefits depending on your health condition/s. You will also likely experience the ‘high’ associated with THC, given its psychoactive properties. 

When you access cannabis legally, you may be prescribed CBD, THC or a medication containing a combination of both, depending on the condition you’re treating. If you’re going to use cannabis as a medication, speaking with your medical professional is your best bet for ensuring you’re getting the treatment and care you need.

Is CBD oil legal in Australia?

At the time of writing in Australia, CBD oil is legal with a prescription – just like any other medicinal cannabis product. As of 2021, you can legally purchase low-dose CBD (containing 98% cannabidiol and no more than 2% of other cannabinoids) over the counter at pharmacies without a prescription, however there are regulatory hurdles still to be cleared before you’ll see these products become available. And many experts are questioning the effectiveness of CBD oil at such a low dose, meaning more research is still to be done.

CBD oil has quickly become one of the most popular and sought after health products in Australia. But as the cannabis industry grows, so does the spread of false promises misinformation. Because of the lack of clarity around the laws and pathways to buying regulated CBD oil in Australia, many have turned to online sellers to buy their products. And this comes at a risk. 

With the abundance of unregulated CBD oil products online claiming to cure everything from cancer to diabetes, it’s easy to see why Australians are choosing to buy their products from local or overseas websites. The important thing to note here is that buying any product online that actually contains CBD is technically illegal in Australia. Many buyers are aware of this and may choose to still buy online due to cost and convenience, however many are unaware that the products they are purchasing – if they do contain CBD – are illegal. If you are buying reputable products from overseas, you might want to consider whether the costs are actually that different to obtaining a prescription and purchasing regulated medicinal cannabis in Australia, as the prices often don’t vary much per mg level. 

If you are buying CBD oil from local Australian websites, you are either buying products which do contain CBD (and are therefore illegal) or you are buying products which do not contain any CBD, but say they do (meaning you’re being lied to). In fact, in Australia, there’s a 1 in 4 chance that the CBD oil you buy online is ‘not what you think it is in terms of strength and potency’ and a 1 in 9 chance that you’re being sold an entirely fake product. 

As with any treatment, the best way to ensure you’re getting what you need in terms of quality and effectiveness is to speak with a health professional.

Where can you get medical cannabis in Australia?

To legally access medicinal cannabis products in Australia, you need a prescription from a qualified doctor. While many Australian doctors are still uncomfortable or unfamiliar with prescribing medicinal cannabis, there are a number of doctors who specialise in medical cannabis prescribing – often called cannabis doctors – who are familiar with the many health benefits that these treatments can offer. The best way to access medical cannabis is to find a trusted doctor – either your current GP or an authorised prescriber such as our Polln Practitioners – and discuss your current condition/s and why medicinal cannabis might be right for you.

The bottom line

When buying cannabis in Australia, it’s important to consider what you’re using it for and whether things like active compounds, quality, regulation and consistency of the product are important to you and your needs. This is especially true if you are using cannabis to treat a medical condition. While the pathways to accessing medicinal cannabis in Australia have not always been clear, the rise of cannabis clinics and increasing government action and public awareness about the benefits of these products is making it easier for patients to access the treatments they need.

At Polln, our biggest mission is to make alternative treatments like medical cannabis more accessible to patients living in Australia. If you’re unsure whether your current doctor can help you access medicinal cannabis, you can book a consultation with one of our Polln Practitioners who specialise in these treatments to discuss whether they might be right for you.