Medical marijuana first became legal back in 2016. Since then, more than 370,000 cannabis prescriptions have been filled in Perth, WA and all over Australia.
A proud and sun-drenched beach haven that also happens to be the most isolated major city in the word, Perth is home to one of the fastest growing medical cannabis communities in Australia.
But while medical cannabis is becoming more accepted each day, people still have a lot of questions around how medical cannabis prescriptions work, who might be eligible, when and how it can be used to treat chronic conditions and whether you can smoke weed in Perth. This article will help answer some of your most pressing questions about medical marijuana in Western Australia.
Who Can Be Prescribed Medical Cannabis in Perth & WA?
So far, medical cannabis has been prescribed for more than 130 medical conditions, including anxiety, PTSD, pain, insomnia, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, autism, fibromyalgia, ADHD and more.
Medical cannabis is classified by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) as an “alternative” medicine, meaning it can be prescribed for almost anything as long as it meets three important criteria:
Your condition has persisted for more than three months
You have attempted to treat your condition using pharmaceutical or non-pharmaceutical methods and they have either failed to work or resulted in unwanted side effects.
Your doctor thinks that medical cannabis could provide relief – and that this outweighs any potential risks of treatment.
How Do Medical Cannabis Prescriptions Work?
These criteria are obviously a bit different from the prescriptions we’re all familiar with. This is because of the way that the TGA classifies prescription medicines. Essentially, the TGA splits all medications in Australia into two categories: registered and unregistered.
Registered medicines tend to be more established medicines that have years or decades of research and clinical use behind them that have proven their efficacy and safety. For instance, we know antibiotics are an effective treatment for bacterial infections, so they’re a registered medicine. If the submission for a certain medicine satisfies the requirements, the TGA then registers them for very specific purposes.
As it stands, the TGA has only approved two medical cannabinoids in WA: a CBD oil for the treatment of seizures associated with certain forms of childhood epilepsy; and a THC-CBD oil for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.
Accessing Prescriptions for Unregistered Medicines
Unregistered medicines are those that are considered safe and potentially effective but have yet to muster the clinical evidence required to be fully approved. The TGA lets doctors prescribe unapproved medicines under two schemes:
Authorised Prescriber Scheme: 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.
More than 90% of the cannabis prescriptions in WA 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.
The fact that most cannabis-based medicines are unregistered doesn’t necessarily mean that cannabis is an ineffective medicine, simply that – thanks to decades of illegality and demonisation – the types of medical research into THC, CBD and other cannabinoids that are required to become registered is only happening now.
How Long Does a Medical Cannabis Approval Take?
Patients who are interested in obtaining a cannabis prescription in Perth must first speak to their healthcare provider about their eligibility. (Medical cannabis is sometimes referred to as medical marijuana or medical cannabinoids in WA.) 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 supplier.
The time it takes to complete this process will depend on how familiar your healthcare professional is with the SAS cannabis prescription pathway, but shouldn't take longer than a day or two. (Dedicated cannabis clinics have streamlined the process so that it can be completed almost instantly.)
How Can I Consume Medical Cannabis in WA?
There are a wide variety of ways that you can be prescribed medical cannabis, taking in everything from lozenges to capsules, ointments and even suppositories. But the vast majority of prescriptions for medical marijuana in Perth are for dried flower and oil. (Despite their popularity overseas, cannabis edibles are not a readily available prescription option in Australia.)
Dried cannabis flower is what 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.
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 psychotropic 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.
What’s the Difference Between CBD and THC?
One of the biggest decisions a doctor will make when issuing a prescription is the balance between cannabidiol (CBD), tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other medicinal cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids. CBD and THC are the two major cannabinoids in cannabis and the two that have been subject of the most research.
CBD has no psychotropic properties, but still appears to offer therapeutic benefit through its effects on the endocannabinoid system. THC, on the other hand, is the compound that makes you feel “affected” when you consume cannabis. Treatment for certain illnesses may rely on THC’s psychotropic properties – for instance, appetite stimulation for cancer patients. However, patients may not want to, or be legally able to feel those effects.
You’ll often see cannabis oils and dried flowers discussed in terms of their THC and CBD content. Flowers tend to be primarily THC – varying in content from around 19% to 32% – with limited naturally occurring CBD. Oils allow producers to more specifically set the CBD and THC levels. With cannabis oils, you can create pure CBD and pure THC oils, or any ratio in between, along with isolates (only CBD or only THC) and full-spectrum (CBD, THC and the rest of the cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids).
Is CBD Oil Legal in WA?
Under the TGA’s guidelines, cannabis products are placed in five categories: pure CBD (>98%), CBD dominant, balanced, THC dominant, pure THC (>98%).
In 2021, the TGA announced that low-dose CBD oils would now be available to buy over the counter at your local pharmacy. However, you’re still unlikely to find any pharmacy CBD oil products because no CBD oil products have yet been fully registered with the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG).
Registration 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 late 2023 before the first products arrive in pharmacies. In the meantime, you can still get CBD oil in Perth and WA through your doctor.
Can I Drive After Taking Medical Cannabis in Western Australia?
As with all states except Tasmania, it is illegal to drive in WA with any amount of THC in your system. The fine for a first offence is up to $1,250 and 3 demerit points. A second offence can lead to the loss of your licence for 6 months.
The difficulty with THC is that it can stay in your system for days, if not weeks after you last used it, so it’s possible to be caught even if you are in no way impaired by the use of your prescription medication. This is why Tasmania has changed the law so that you need to be actually impaired before an offence occurs.
Note that this law is specifically about THC. Isolate CBD oils do not cause psychotropic effects and you can safely drive after using them.
How Much Does Medical Marijuana Cost in WA?
Medical cannabis generally isn’t covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. This means that you’ll have to pay for your medication out-of-pocket i.e. at full price.
The price of medical cannabis will vary depending on the form and dosage you’ve been prescribed. The average cost for patients is around $250-$300 per month, not including the cost of your appointment with the prescribing doctor, which is typically between $80-$150.
Some private health insurers may cover part of the cost, so it’s worth getting in touch with them before you book an appointment.
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 Queensland 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 what you expected, you can set up a follow-up appointment with a cannabis clinician to discuss what is and isn’t working.