While more and more people are starting to use medical cannabis in Australia, many of us still aren’t clear on how and where it can be prescribed. This post should help clear up a few questions you may have, such as where you can find a medical cannabis doctor, what a medical cannabis card is and the legality of CBD oil in Australia.
How Is Medical Cannabis Prescribed?
Generally speaking, medications in Australia fall into two categories: registered and unregistered. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) will decide if a medication is registered or unregistered based on the current evidence supporting its efficacy and safety.
If a medication has been proven effective and safe through a large body of research, the TGA will register it. For example: antibiotics to treat bacterial infections are registered because they have a long history of research behind them. Unregistered medications still have to be proven safe, but they may not have enough evidence to guarantee their effectiveness.
All but two medical cannabis products are unregistered medications. The registered medical cannabis products are a combination THC/CBD oil to treat multiple sclerosis and a pure CBD oil that helps manage a rare form of childhood epilepsy. This doesn’t mean other medical cannabis products are unsafe or ineffective – it just means they lack a significant body of research to prove their effectiveness.
Doctors can still prescribe unregistered medications such as most medical cannabis products, but they must prescribe them via one of two schemes devised by the TGA:
The Authorised Prescriber Scheme: doctors can become authorised prescribers and prescribe unregistered medications to a certain class of patients. About 1,800 authorised prescribers are currently in Australia.
The Special Access Scheme: the SAS allows any doctor to prescribe an unregistered medication when they think it might be effective, but each case requires an individual application to the TGA.
Over 90% of the 390,000 medical cannabis prescriptions since 2016 were prescribed under the SAS. As a patient, you don’t have to worry about the SAS or APS. It’s more important for you to know the best ways of finding a doctor who knows the potential benefits and risks of medical cannabis.
How Do I Find A Medical Cannabis Doctor?
Any doctor in Australia can prescribe medical cannabis, as long as they’re willing to go through the SAS or the APS, the two schemes outlined above. The only thing you have to decide as a patient is whether you want to see your regular healthcare provider about medical cannabis or a doctor from a dedicated medical cannabis clinic.
If you’re unsure of where to start, speaking with your GP about medical cannabis can be a good idea. They will know you and your medical history and should have a good idea if medical cannabis might benefit you. Keep in mind that not all GP’s will offer medical cannabis to patients – it’s estimated that only 5% of Australian doctors are willing to prescribe it. You may feel uncomfortable bringing up medical cannabis with your doctor, especially if you think they might not be receptive to the idea.
Dedicated medical cannabis clinics offer confidential consultations with a doctor who knows the potential benefits and risks of medical cannabis. Don’t worry if there’s not one near you – medical cannabis clinics usually offer telehealth appointments, so you can book a consultation regardless of where you live. If you receive a prescription from a medical cannabis clinic you can purchase your medication and have it discreetly delivered to your front door.
Why Might A Doctor Not Prescribe Medical Cannabis?
It’s understandable why some doctors are hesitant to prescribe medical cannabis. The process can be time-consuming and the research behind medical cannabis is exciting but still in the early stages.
While the SAS and APS aren’t a concern for you as a patient, for doctors they can be time-consuming and create a lot of paperwork. Some GPs may wish to avoid the SAS and APS, especially if they think an alternative medication might be more effective than medical cannabis.
Medical cannabis is also a relatively new treatment option, so some doctors might not be up to date on the evidence supporting it. There’s also a lot to consider when prescribing medical cannabis, such as the best form for each condition (flower, oil etc.), appropriate dosages and prescribing regimens – not all doctors are familiar with these aspects of medical cannabis.
A doctor also won’t prescribe medical cannabis to someone who isn’t eligible. To be prescribed medical cannabis, you must have tried other conventional treatments first but found them to be ineffective or that they caused unmanageable side effects. Doctors also won’t prescribe medical cannabis to people with a family history of psychosis.
As mentioned, doctors from dedicated cannabis clinics will be very familiar with the potential benefits and risks of medical cannabis and CBD oil. But if you would prefer to stick with your GP, you can ask them if they are an authorised prescriber or if they know about the Special Access Scheme. They are more likely to go the SAS route, as the vast majority of medical cannabis is prescribed this way.
What Is A Medical Cannabis Card?
Some medical cannabis clinics are beginning to issue medical cannabis cards. Medical cannabis cards explain that you have been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to use medical cannabis for your diagnosed condition, and include your name, patient ID, date of birth and when your card was issued. As you might imagine, only approved medical cannabis patients can legally obtain a medical cannabis card.
While medical cannabis cards aren’t an official legal document like they are in America, they do provide a simple way to demonstrate that you are entitled to carry and use your medical cannabis products. But keep in mind – medical cannabis cards aren’t legally recognised, so keep your medication in its original packaging with the pharmacy labels intact to avoid any misunderstandings.
What Is The Legal Status Of CBD Oil & Who Can Prescribe It?
CBD oil containing one percent or less THC is technically legal to buy over the counter at Australian pharmacies, but we’re unlikely to see CBD products on pharmacy shelves until late 2023 at the earliest. This is because CBD oil products have to go through an involved approval process with the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods before they are available for sale, and very few companies can afford the large cost of this process.
All qualified doctors in Australia can prescribe CBD oil through the SAS or APS just like any other medical cannabis product. Doctors can also prescribe CBD oil as a compounded product. Compounded products are special formulations made by compound pharmacies that specialise in tailored medication. Of course, doctors still need to follow the protocol for prescribing medical cannabis if prescribing CBD oil as a compounded product.
Getting Started With Medical Cannabis
Even though it's an emerging treatment option, getting a medical cannabis prescription is straightforward, provided you are eligible for one. Remember – any doctor in Australia can prescribe medical cannabis via the Special Access Scheme or the Authorised Prescriber Scheme. If you’re worried that your regular healthcare provider might be reluctant to prescribe or unfamiliar with medical cannabis, you might want to look into a medical cannabis clinic.
Medical cannabis clinics offer telehealth appointments, so don’t worry if you aren’t near one. If you think you might benefit from medical cannabis, don’t hesitate to book an initial consultation to discuss your condition and how medical cannabis might help.