Medical Cannabis Edibles: A Guide For Australian Patients

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Feb 8, 2024
Last updated:
May 2, 2024

Medical cannabis edibles are exactly what the name suggests: medical cannabis you can eat. This doesn't mean simply consuming the raw flower – cannabis compounds need to be ‘activated’ during the preparation process for their effects to appear.

While for many years medical cannabis edibles were a rarity in Australia, they have recently become a widely available prescription option. Typically offered as candy-like gummies, these edibles have precisely controlled CBD and THC dosages and can be especially helpful for people with mobility issues and arthritis, or those who want to avoid inhalation-based cannabis therapies.

Read on for a primer on the benefits and risks of medical cannabis edibles, how they work and some important safety considerations.

How Are Medical Cannabis Edibles Different To Inhaled Cannabis?

Medical cannabis edibles produce effects that last longer and take more time to appear compared to inhalation. When you vape medical cannabis, the effects appear within minutes. This is because the lungs quickly absorb the psychotropic cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) where it then passes directly into the bloodstream and is delivered to different areas of the body, including the brain.

After inhaling medical cannabis, you can expect the effects to peak within 10 to 20 minutes  and to last for around 2 to 3 hours. Medical cannabis edibles have a very different timeframe: after ingestion, the effects sometimes don’t appear until 1 or 2 hours have passed, with the effects usually peaking at around 4 hours and lasting for up to 12. Depending on its THC content, you may even feel residual effects from a medicated edible for up to 24 hours.

Edibles have delayed effects because the liver must first metabolise ingested cannabis before the psychoactive compounds can enter your bloodstream. When you ingest medical cannabis, the liver processes THC into a more potent compound called 11-hydroxy-THC, which explains why some people experience stronger or different effects when using ingestible cannabis.

Are Cannabis Oils & Capsules Different To Edibles?

Medical cannabis oils and capsules have essentially the same method of action as a cannabis edible. Cannabis oils must also be processed by the liver to take effect, unless your doctor directs you to take the oil sublingually. Sublingual administration is when you place a medicine under your tongue for it to dissolve into the mucous membranes and enter your bloodstream, bypassing the digestive system.

Taking cannabis oil sublingually will cause a faster onset of effects but a shorter overall duration. If your doctor directs you to swallow the oil instead it will closely resemble edible cannabis in terms of how your body processes it, how long the effects last and how long they take to appear.

Cannabis oils allow for more precise dosing compared to edibles, as your oil will come with a measured dropper or syringe and the oil’s THC content per mg will be clearly labelled. Cannabis capsules are very similar to edibles, coming prefilled with specific amounts of cannabidiol (CBD) and/or THC, so you know exactly what you’re consuming.

What Are The Benefits of Medical Cannabis Edibles?

There are several potential advantages to ingesting medical cannabis rather than inhaling it, but which method of consumption suits you best will depend on your condition and personal preference. One advantage that medical cannabis edibles offer is that they are more discreet and easier to consume compared to vaping. Medical cannabis vaporisers can also be expensive and are difficult for some people to operate.

The major reason some prefer medical cannabis edibles is because of the longer lasting effects. Some people with chronic pain conditions find that edible medical cannabis provides longer and more pronounced relief. The same applies to people with sleep issues – the prolonged effects of medicated edibles might help people fall and stay asleep for longer. They can also be useful for people with arthritis or mobility issues, as well as those with respiratory problems, who may be unable to use a vaporiser or vape cart.

Depending on your condition, a CBD dominant edible may suit you best, but there are also products with a balanced ratio of CBD and THC and products that are dominant in THC. Your doctor will help you tailor your treatment to fit your unique needs and circumstances.

What Are The Risks of Using Medical Cannabis Edibles?

Sometimes people don’t realise that the effects of cannabis edibles can take 1-2 hours  to appear. This can cause people to think their medication isn’t ‘working’ and so they consume more cannabis. This can lead to a cannabis overdose, which, while rarely serious, can be  unpleasant.

If you’re using medical cannabis edibles, always wait at least two hours to see how your body reacts to the medication. A variety of factors can change how edible cannabis affects you, including your metabolism, what you’ve recently eaten, your weight and THC tolerance.

Before prescribing medical cannabis edibles, your doctor will create a dosing schedule based on your experience and symptoms. When in doubt it’s always good to ‘start low and go slow.’  

Medical cannabis can also have side effects regardless of whether you inhale or ingest it, but they are rare and usually minor. Possible side effects include dry mouth, nausea, fatigue, vertigo, vomiting, fever, decreased or increased appetite and diarrhoea. In some vulnerable people, THC may cause paranoia, delusions, hallucinations and possibly psychosis. Medical cannabis is not prescribed to people with a history of psychosis for this reason.

Accessing Medical Cannabis Edibles In Australia

Despite their popularity overseas, it's taken a long time for medical cannabis edibles to become widely available in Australia. However, the situation is changing fast and there are now a number of balanced and CBD- and THC-dominant edibles that can be prescribed by Australian doctors.

As with all forms of medical cannabis, if you think you could benefit from cannabis edibles speak with your doctor or book an appointment at a medical cannabis clinic. If you haven’t had success with conventional medications you might be eligible for a medical cannabis prescription. Your doctor will assess you and your condition and suggest a medical cannabis product that’s best for you.

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