Medical cannabis has been a legal treatment option for eligible patients in NSW since 2016. However, finding a doctor that is both able to and understands medical cannabis can be challenging. In this post, we will discuss what it means to be an authorised prescriber in NSW, how medical marijuana is regulated and what you might need to consider before exploring a prescription.
Types of Authorised Prescribers in NSW
The ways in which medical cannabis is prescribed can be confusing. People think they need to find a list of authorised prescribers in New South Wales but, as a prescription medication, cannabis can actually be prescribed by any qualified doctor in Australia. To put it simply: every GP and specialist is potentially authorised to prescribe cannabis.
But that’s not to say that authorised prescribers don’t exist. Authorised prescriber is a technical term for a specific type of prescriber under the guidelines of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). But before we get to that, first we need to understand the difference between registered and unregistered medicines.
The TGA classifies all medicines in Australia in two categories: registered and unregistered. Registered medicines are medicines that have had their efficacy and safety tested over years if not decades of use and research. For instance, using antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection. There are currently only two registered cannabis medications: a combination THC/CBD oil to treat multiple sclerosis and a pure CBD oil to treat a rare form of childhood epilepsy.
Unregistered medicines are those that are recognised to be safe to use, but are yet to have consistently proven their effectiveness in high-level research. Thanks to decades of stigma and prohibition, this kind of research into medical cannabis is only just emerging, hence its broad categorisation as “unregistered”. The TGA lets doctors prescribe unregistered medicines under two schemes:
Authorised Prescriber Scheme: Authorised prescribers are doctors that have been given authority to prescribe unregistered medicines to a certain class of patients. There are currently around 1,800 authorised prescribers in Australia.
Special Access Scheme: under the SAS, Australian doctors are able to prescribe unregistered medicines when they think it might be an effective treatment. Each case requires an individual application to the TGA.
The SAS accounts for more than 90% of the more than 390,000 medical cannabis prescriptions issued since 2016. The issue isn’t finding an authorised prescriber – it’s finding a doctor that understands the potential benefits and risks of medical cannabis and is able to decide whether it’s a suitable treatment option for your chronic condition.
Regulations and Guidance for Medical Marijuana in NSW
The use of medical cannabis is regulated by both federal and state laws in New South Wales. The TGA is responsible for regulating medical cannabis prescriptions, while the Office of Drug Control (ODC) regulates the cultivation and manufacture of cannabis for medical purposes. The New South Wales Government has also developed guidelines for the use of medical cannabis in the state, including information on patient eligibility, dosing and monitoring.
In order to qualify for a medical cannabis prescription in New South Wales, patients are required to have a chronic medical condition that has persisted for more than three months and has not been effectively treated using conventional methods. This doesn't require that patients have exhausted all other treatment options, but rather that they have attempted other therapies, including pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical methods, and have either experienced unpleasant side effects or found that their symptoms were not resolved.
What Should I Consider Before Getting A Medical Cannabis Prescription?
Before exploring medical cannabis as a treatment option for your chronic condition, it's important to weigh its potential benefits against the risks. Although medical cannabis is showing promise, the research is still in its early stages, and there's no certainty that it will be effective for everyone. Furthermore, the psychoactive effects of THC may not be suitable for all patients, particularly those with a history of psychosis in their family. It's worth noting, however, that pure CBD oil does not have psychoactive properties, so may still be a feasible treatment option.
It’s also important to think about the type of medical cannabis that suits you best. In NSW, medical cannabis is generally prescribed in two forms: dried flower and oil. Dried flower refers to the dried buds of the cannabis plant AKA the traditional form of marijuana. However, unlike recreational marijuana, medical-grade dried flower usually comes from a single cultivar with specific therapeutic properties and is subject to strict quality control. To use dried flower, it is recommended to vaporise it with a specialized vaporiser such as the Mighty Medic or the Volcano Medic.
Cannabis oils are concentrated extracts from the plant, available in balanced, CBD- or THC-dominant varieties. Oils are usually classified as either isolated (pure CBD and/or THC essence) or full-spectrum, which means that it also contains various terpenes and cannabinoids in addition to CBD and THC. Your doctor will assess your medical history and any previous cannabis experience when determining the most suitable treatment option for you.
You should also consider how a medical cannabis prescription could impact your personal and professional life. Despite being legally permitted for medical use, cannabis is still not universally accepted and there may be resistance from employers if you use it at work – despite it legally being considered exactly the same as all other prescription medicines. This can make it challenging to balance your treatment needs with your work responsibilities.
It is also currently illegal to drive or operate heavy machinery with THC in your system in every state except Tasmania. (Victoria has announced plans to change the laws, but these have yet to come into effect.)
Who Can Prescribe CBD Oil In NSW?
Although CBD oil containing one percent or less THC is technically legal to buy over the counter in NSW, you’ll still need a prescription to access it. As to who can prescribe it – CBD oil is no different to other medical cannabis products. Any qualified doctor in NSW can prescribe CBD oil via the SAS or if they are an authorised prescriber.
A less common way that CBD oil may be prescribed is as a compounded product. Compounded products are specialised formulations tailored for a patient. Doctors, of course, still have to be aware of state laws around prescribing and dispensing medical cannabis products before prescribing CBD oil as a compounded product.
Authorised cannabis clinics are another way to obtain a prescription for CBD oil. Like other medical cannabis products, you still have to have tried other medications before CBD oil, and your condition needs to have lasted for longer than three months.
Are Cannabis Dispensaries Legal in NSW?
Cannabis dispensaries of the kind you might be familiar with – such as those found in Canada or the USA – probably won’t exist in NSW or Australia for several years. Being a prescription medication, the law prohibits any display or advertisement of available medical cannabis products.
Certain medical cannabis clinics in NSW are planning on opening face-to-face medical cannabis services, but currently all medical cannabis clinics in NSW offer prescriptions and consults via telehealth only.
How Do I Apply for Medical Cannabis in NSW?
In order to obtain a medical cannabis prescription in NSW, patients must first speak to a doctor about whether they might be eligible. (Medical cannabis is sometimes referred to as medical marijuana or medical cannabinoids in New South Wales.) If their healthcare provider believes that medical cannabis may be a suitable treatment option, they can apply for access through the SAS or APS.
To apply for access through the SAS, patients must have their healthcare provider submit an application on their behalf. The application must include information about the patient's medical condition, the proposed medical cannabis product and the dosing regimen. Once the application is approved, patients can access the prescribed medical cannabis product through an approved pharmacy.