Since first becoming legal in 2016, more than 370,000 prescriptions have been filled for medical cannabis in Australia. Only a small portion of these prescriptions have come from Tasmania, but as with the rest of Australia that number is growing fast.
In places where medical cannabis isn’t as widespread, knowledge around its legality and who and what it's prescribed for might be lacking. If you live in Tasmania and want to know more about medical cannabis, this post should help get you infomed.
Who Can Be Prescribed Medical Cannabis in Tasmania?
In Tasmania, over 130 medical conditions are potentially eligible for a medical cannabis prescription, including pain, fibromyalgia, autism, PTSD, anxiety, insomnia, multiple sclerosis, ADHD and epilepsy.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) still classifies medical cannabis as an “alternative” treatment, meaning you need to have tried conventional treatments first. This doesn’t mean you have to try every possible treatment. It means that to be prescribed medical cannabis your condition needs to have either not responded well to conventional treatments or you experienced unacceptable side effects.
How Do Medical Cannabis Prescriptions Work?
Medical cannabis prescriptions are handled somewhat differently to regular prescriptions. The TGA, an independent government body, regulates all prescription medicines. The TGA assesses the scientific evidence for a medication’s effectiveness and safety and then determines if that medication is approved or unapproved.
Medicines that get approved are typically backed up by a significant body of research and clinical use, and have proven to be safe and effective. For example: antibiotics for treating bacterial infections. Once a medicine has been approved, the TGA registers it for a specific purpose.
So far the TGA has only approved two medical cannabis products in Tasmania:
Sativex: an oral mouth spray that contains THC and CBD for treating multiple sclerosis.
Epidyolex: a CBD oil for treating seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.
The Difference Between Approved and Unapproved Medicines
The barrier to getting a medicine approved is high and many emerging medicines are yet to pass it, even if they are the subject of promising research. However, that doesn’t mean these medicines have no use or can’t be prescribed, merely that their effectiveness is still being gauged.
While cannabis has been used medically for thousands of years, high-grade research on CBD, THC and other cannabinoids has only recently started thanks to decades of demonisation and suppression.
Doctors can still prescribe unapproved medicines under two schemes devised by the TGA:
Special Access Scheme: if they think an unapproved medicine may help a patient’s condition, doctors can prescribe that medicine via the Special Access Scheme (SAS).
Authorised Prescriber Scheme: doctors apply to the TGA to become authorised prescribers of specific unapproved medicines for a particular class of patients.
More than 90% of cannabis prescriptions in Tasmania and other parts of Australia are prescribed under the SAS. If you want to know more about who and what conditions medical cannabis is prescribed for, the data is available on the TGA’s website.
How Long Does a Medical Cannabis Approval Take in Tasmania?
If you live in Tasmania and are interested in medical cannabis, you can book a consultation with your GP or a medical cannabis clinic to discuss whether you’re eligible. If your doctor believes that medical cannabis may be a suitable treatment option, they can apply for access though the SAS or APS.
If your doctor is prescribing through the SAS, your healthcare provider will submit an application on your behalf containing information about your condition, the proposed medical cannabis product and the dosing regimen. Once your application is approved, you can access your prescribed medical cannabis product through an approved supplier.
If you speak with a dedicated medical cannabis clinic, the process may move faster as the process will be more automated. Otherwise, how long the process takes will depend on how familiar your healthcare provider is with the SAS cannabis prescription pathway, but a typical timeframe is one or two days.
How Can I Consume Medical Cannabis in Tasmania?
Medical cannabis comes in many forms, including capsules, lozenges and ointments. However, the most commonly prescribed method of administration is through concentrated oils or vaping dried cannabis flower. Cannabis edibles, while popular overseas, aren’t readily prescribed in Australia. You and your doctor will discuss these options and decide which is best for you.
Dried cannabis flower is the most well-known form of medical cannabis. Dried cannabis flowers are ground up and added to a vaporiser, where you can easily control your dosage. It's important to note that the TGA approves of vaping cannabis flower but not smoking it. Smoke inhalation can be harmful and it's difficult to regulate your dosage through smoking cannabis.
Oils contain very specific ratios of THC, CBD, terpenes, flavonoids and other minor cannabinoids to deliver a tailored cannabis medicine. Certain oils contain no THC, which is particularly useful if you don’t want to or can’t consume THC because of its psychoactive effects, but are still interested in CBD’s therapeutic benefits. With oils, you can control your dose very precisely. Some ways to consume cannabis oil include drops under the tongue (sublingual), vape cartridges, capsules and ointments.
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 are also the most researched.
CBD has no psychoactive properties, but still appears to offer some potential therapeutic benefit through its effects on the endocannabinoid system. THC, on the other hand, is the compound that makes you feel “high” when you consume cannabis. Treatment for certain illnesses may rely on THC’s psychoactive properties – for instance, appetite stimulation for cancer patients.
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 THC 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, there are: isolates, which include CBD or THC only; broad-spectrum, which includes CBD, other minor cannabinoids such as CBN, and terpenes and flavonoids but no THC; and full-spectrum, which contains CBD, THC, terpenes, flavonoids and other minor cannabinoids.
Can I Drive While Taking Medical Cannabis In Tasmania?
In all other Australian states, it’s illegal to have any THC detectable in your system when driving. Tasmania is unique in this regard – you may drive with small amounts of THC in your system, provided you aren’t under THC’s intoxicating effects and have a valid medical cannabis prescription.
Is CBD Oil Legal in Tasmania?
Under the TGA’s guidelines, cannabis products are placed in five categories: pure CBD (>98% CBD), CBD dominant, balanced, THC dominant and pure THC (>98% THC).
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 still won’t find any pharmacy CBD oil products because none 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 that 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 Tasmania through your doctor.
How Much Does Medical Cannabis Cost in Tasmania?
As a general rule, your medical cannabis prescription won’t be covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). This means that you’ll have to pay for your medication at full price.
The price of medical cannabis will vary depending on the form and dosage you’ve been prescribed. The average cost is around $250 to $300 per month, not including the cost of your appointment with the prescribing doctor which tends to be between $80 and $150.
What's the Difference Between a Medical Cannabis Clinic and a GP?
One of the biggest barriers for people who might be eligible to access medical marijuana in Tasmania 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. A doctor from a medical cannabis clinic will ask you about your condition and treatment history and assess whether you might benefit from medical cannabis. They’ll then help you decide on the form of medical cannabis and which cannabinoids might be best for your condition and comfort level.
If you’re 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. If the treatment isn’t what you expected, you can arrange a follow-up appointment with a cannabis clinician to discuss what is and isn’t working.