Medical Cannabis in Australia: Post Cannabis Legalisation Review

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Mar 6, 2023
Last updated:
May 2, 2024

Cannabis has a very long history in Australia. The first official record of common hemp seeds being brought to Australia dates back to the First Fleet in 1788 when the first European settlers arrived in Australia. Since then, our nation’s relationship with cannabis has been ever-changing.

No period of change, however, has eclipsed the last seven years of cannabis legislation in Australia. Since medical cannabis was authorised for use with a prescription for patients under specific circumstances, there have been significant and minor changes to the products available, processes for prescribing doctors, public opinion, and more.

2016 - Medicinal Cannabis Legislation in Australia Passes Parliament  

Elizabeth Quay , Perth Australia
It all began in 2016, when Australia passed legislation opening avenues to medical cannabis.

On the 24th of February, 2016, the Turnbull Government passed historic legislation that allowed patients with specific conditions to access medicinal cannabis products with a prescription from a doctor.

This legislation saw amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act, allowing cannabis to be grown to manufacture medicinal products here in Australia.

The media release read, “Under this scheme, a patient with a valid prescription can possess and use a medicinal cannabis product manufactured from cannabis plants legally cultivated in Australia, where the supply is appropriately authorised under the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 and relevant state and territory legislation.”

2020: Australia Legalises Over-the-Counter CBD Oil

You wouldn’t know it from a visit to your local chemist. Still, in December 2020, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) announced a final decision to down-schedule CBD from Schedule 4 (Prescription Medicine) to Schedule 3 (Pharmacist Only Medicine).

This decision means 98 percent pure CBD oil with a dose size of up to 150 mg/day can be supplied over the counter to adults without a prescription.

It sounds simple in theory, but there are several barriers to stocking and selling medicine in Australia.

For one, sufficient data has to be available to the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) to certify a product’s safety, efficacy, and overall quality. Generating this research is something only the largest pharmaceutical companies can afford to do, and without significant financial motivation, it’s unlikely they will pursue it.

Due to these constraints, over-the-counter CBD oil is legal but not readily available.

2021: Streamlined Medical Cannabis Prescriptions

In November 2021, the TGA changed the access framework and application processes for medicinal cannabis products. These changes were designed to help improve patient access by reducing the administrative burden for manufacturers and prescribing doctors.

The first change was that companies or individuals manufacturing products would no longer need to submit a declaration of compliance with the quality standard. They are still bound to comply with the standards set by the TGA and may be subject to random monitoring or testing.

In addition, the TGA changed how products were categorised, with lower-risk products like CBD-dominant and balanced products included in the Authorised Prescriber ‘Established history of use’ pathway. This means that authorised doctors can prescribe medicinal cannabis without needing to get separate approvals for individual patients.

Another significant change allowed prescriptions to be less brand-specific, meaning pharmacists could substitute brands when required. Patients would no longer wait for an exact brand and product to become available at their local chemist.

By streamlining the prescription process, more patients can access medical cannabis when needed.

2022: Current Trends and Patient Statistics

From 2020 to 2021, prescriptions for medicinal cannabis doubled, most likely due to the relaxed processes for prescribing doctors. At the time of writing, over 333,784 medical cannabis prescriptions have been approved by the TGA.

These prescriptions have helped patients manage a range of approved conditions. Data from the TGA shows that chronic pain is the most common reason for prescribing medicinal cannabis, with 180,920 prescriptions administered. Anxiety follows with 77,840 prescriptions; sleep disorders are next highest at 14,010.

An anonymous online survey from September 2020 to January 2021 supports this data. Within the 37.6 percent of respondents who had used prescribed medicinal cannabis in the past year, pain was the most common reason.

According to the TGA, oral liquids, dried herbs, and oils are the most commonly prescribed dosage forms. Again, the survey supported this data, with oral formats being the most widely used form of medicinal cannabis at 72 percent.

Compositionally, 40 percent of survey participants said their prescription was ‘equal THC/CBD’, while 31 percent said ‘mainly CBD.’

As medicinal cannabis has become more common, attitudes around cannabis seem to be shifting. A 2021 study of 21,279 participants showed that 77 percent supported the legalisation of medical cannabis, and 40 percent supported the legalisation of recreational cannabis.

In a 2020 survey of cannabis consumers, 78 percent of respondents indicated that people should be able to buy and use medical cannabis without approval by a medical practitioner, and 92 percent believed that medical cannabis should be part of routine healthcare in Australia.

Medical Cannabis Going Forward

We’ve come a long way in seven years, and the future for the medical cannabis community looks bright. With CBD oil approved for over-the-counter access, it’s only time until manufacturers can bring even greater access. In just one year, the changes to the process for prescribing doctors had a positive impact.

There is still a need for regulators to clarify laws around things like employee rights and driving and medical cannabis to ensure patients are not only able to access medicinal cannabis but use it as their doctor sees fit.  

Slowly but surely, public perception of medical cannabis has improved. With a growing number of advocates for change who have first-hand experience with medicinal cannabis, we’ll likely see a continued shift in attitudes.

If you want to explore medical cannabis as a treatment for your chronic condition, you can book an appointment with a cannabis clinic or your local GP. They'll be able to offer frank and non-judgmental advice and decide whether you are eligible for – and would benefit from – a prescription.

There are a number of risks associated with the use of medical cannabis and your doctor will explain these to you before issuing a prescription. Medical cannabis affects everyone differently and may not help with your chronic condition.

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