Home to the vast civil service that powers our government, Canberra has long been known as Australia’s most progressive region – and this is especially true when it comes to cannabis.
Like in the rest of the country, medical cannabis has been legal in the ACT since 2016. But when it comes to recreational cannabis, Canberra is ahead of the pack, having decriminalised cannabis for personal use in 2020.
But how exactly do the Canberra cannabis laws work? Who is medical cannabis for? And how can a patient get a medical cannabis prescription in the ACT?
Who Can Be Prescribed Medical Cannabis?
In Canberra medical marijuana has been prescribed for more than 130 conditions, from anxiety to PTSD, pain, insomnia, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, autism, fibromyalgia, ADHD and many more. If the condition has persisted for more than three months and has proven resistant to conventional treatment methods, you can talk to your doctor about whether it might benefit from cannabis care.
It’s important to note that cannabis is still considered an “alternative” treatment. This basically means that it can’t be the first treatment offered to patients. Under this rule you don’t need to have tried every other available treatment – you simply need to have tried other therapies, whether they’re pharmaceutical or non-pharmaceutical, and found that they either didn’t work or caused unacceptable side-effects.
How Do Medical Cannabis Prescriptions Work in the ACT
Like all other prescription medicines, you need to talk to a doctor if you want to get access to medicinal marijuana in Canberra. However, medical cannabis prescriptions work slightly differently to regular prescriptions.
Prescription medicines are regulated by a government body called the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Essentially, the TGA assesses the available evidence for a given medicine and then determines if they should be considered registered or unregistered.
Registered medicines are those that have a significant body of research and clinical use behind them and can make definitive claims as to their efficacy and safety i.e. antibiotics are an effective treatment for bacterial infections. The TGA then registers these medicines for very specific purposes.
As it stands, the TGA only recognises two medical cannabinoids in Canberra:
CBD oil for the treatment of seizures associated with the Lennoz-Gastaut and Dravet forms of epilepsy.
A combination of THC and CBD oil for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.
When Can Patients Be Prescribed Medical Cannabis?
Unregistered medicines are those that are considered safe and potentially effective but have yet to muster the clinical evidence required to be fully registered. This doesn’t mean that cannabis is an ineffective medicine, simply that the sort of medical research required to become registered with the TGA is only now being undertaken.
The TGA lets doctors prescribe unregistered medicines under two schemes:
Authorised Prescriber Scheme: the APS lets doctors apply to the TGA to become Authorised Prescribers of specific unregistered medicines for a particular class of patients.
Special Access Scheme: the SAS allows doctors to prescribe an unregistered medicine to a patient if they think it might help their condition. SAS prescriptions are approved by the TGA on a case-by-case basis.
More than 90% of the cannabis prescriptions in Canberra are completed through the SAS. If you’re curious as to who’s being prescribed medical cannabis and what conditions it’s being prescribed for, the TGA makes the prescribing data publicly available.
How Can You Consume Medical Cannabis in Canberra?
Your doctor will talk to you about your preferred method of administration. Cannabis can be prescribed in many forms – including lozenges, capsules and ointments – but by far the most commonly prescribed are flowers and oils. (Despite their popularity overseas, cannabis edibles are not a readily available prescription option in Australia.)
When we talk about cannabis flowers, we’re talking about the dried plants you probably picture when you think about marijuana. Flowers are ground up using a grinder and then added to a vaporiser, which makes it easy for the patient to control their dosage. It’s important to note that under TGA guidelines, cannabis flower can only be vaporised. Smoking cannabis is not an approved method of ingestion due to issues with regulating dosage and the adverse health effects of smoke inhalation.
A more recent innovation, oils are highly concentrated extracts of CBD and THC (along with various terpenes, flavonoids and cannabinoids) that allow for the delivery of tailored cannabis medicines. This is particularly the case with CBD oils, which can offer therapeutic benefits without the psychoactive effects of the cannabis flower. Oils allow for very precise dosing and can be consumed in a wide variety of ways, from drops under the tongue (sublingual) to vape cartridges, capsules, ointments and more.
Is Cannabis Legal for Recreational Use in the ACT?
ACT marijuana laws are different from the rest of Australia. In all other states and territories, medical cannabis is legal, while possession of recreational cannabis remains a crime.
In Canberra marijuana isn’t legal, but it is decriminalised. That means adults (aged 18 and over) can possess up to 50 grams of dried cannabis or 150 grams of fresh cannabis and grow up to two cannabis plants in their homes.
However, there are still strict laws about cannabis use. For example, using cannabis anywhere except your own house and exposing children to cannabis remains illegal. You also can’t share, sell or gift cannabis (i.e. dealing cannabis is still a crime), and driving with cannabis in your system is illegal.
Why Choose Medical Cannabis Over Black Market Cannabis?
While cannabis has been decriminalised for personal use in Canberra, there are still a number of reasons why eligible patients should seek out medical cannabis rather than buying it off the black market.
First is quality. Medical cannabis is scrutinised at every step of the production process to ensure that you know exactly what you’re getting, how strong it’s going to be, how it’s been grown and where it comes from.
Second is cost. While medical cannabis used to be more expensive than black market weed, nowadays the price is basically the same – and in terms of THC/CBD content almost certainly cheaper, especially if you’re using cannabis oils or vaporising your cannabis.
Third is convenience. If you’re eligible for a medical cannabis prescription, you’ll be able to buy weed in Canberra from any approved pharmacy. If you get your prescription through a telehealth clinic, your medicine can be delivered to your door.
Is CBD Oil Legal in Canberra?
The TGA splits cannabis products into five categories: pure CBD (>98%), CBD dominant, balanced, THC dominant, pure THC (>98%).
In 2021, the TGA announced that low-dose pure CBD oils would now be available to buy over the counter at your local pharmacy. However, it is still almost impossible to access pure CBD oil in Canberra without a prescription due to the way that medical products are regulated in Australia.
In order to be sold through pharmacies, products need to be registered with the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). This is an involved and expensive process that requires clinical trials and formal approvals and which can take up to 2 years. Given the change only came into effect in 2021, it will probably take until later in 2023 before the first products arrive in pharmacies.
In the meantime, you can still get a CBD prescription in Canberra through your doctor.
What's the Difference Between a Cannabis Clinic and a GP?
One of the biggest barriers for people who might be eligible to access medical marijuana in Canberra is access itself. It’s estimated that only 5% of Australian doctors are currently prescribing medical cannabis and it can be difficult and uncomfortable for patients to have open conversations about cannabis care with their GP.
Dedicated cannabis clinics offer confidential consultations with doctors who understand the potential benefits and risks of medical cannabis. They’ll ask you questions about your condition and treatment history and – if they assess that you might benefit from a prescription – they’ll help you navigate towards a formula and type of cannabis product that best suits your symptoms and level of comfort.
If you are eligible for a medical cannabis prescription, you can typically purchase your medicine and have it delivered to your door, packaged in a discreet box. All medical cannabis products must pass exhaustive checks with the TGA before being offered to patients, so you can be confident that what you’re buying is exactly what you’re getting. And if the treatment isn’t working as you’d hoped, you can set up a follow-up appointment with a cannabis clinician to discuss your concerns.