While most people think of cannabis as dried flower, when it comes to medical marijuana a large amount of the prescriptions being issued are for cannabis oils.
Oils are a more recent innovation in the medical cannabis field and allow for highly targeted therapies and more efficient dosing. But what are cannabis oils? How are they made? And what conditions might they be suitable for? Read on to find out.
What Is Cannabis Oil
Cannabis oil is a concentrated extract obtained from the cannabis plant. This extract is then mixed with a carrier oil, such as coconut or olive oil, to make it easier to consume.
Cannabis oils are generally split into cannabidiol (CBD) or tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) dominant varieties, although it’s possible to get balanced oils as well. CBD and THC are two of the more than 100 different cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Cannabis oils are usually described in terms of their milligrams of CBD and/or THC per millilitre – what’s known as their concentration.
How Is Cannabis Oil Made?
There are several different methods for extracting cannabis essence from the plant, but the most common are:
CO2: This method uses pressurised carbon dioxide to extract the cannabis oil from the plant. The CO2 is cooled and pressurised until it becomes a liquid, which is then passed through the cannabis plant material. The oil is then separated from the CO2, leaving behind a highly concentrated extract.
Ethanol: This method uses high-proof ethanol to extract the oil from the plant. The plant material is soaked in the ethanol, which dissolves the THC, CBD and other cannabinoids. The ethanol is then evaporated, leaving behind a concentrated extract.
Olive oil: This method is the most straightforward form of extraction. The cannabis plant material is heated in olive oil, which extracts the CBD and other cannabinoids. The resulting oil is then strained to remove the plant material.
Rosin: Rosin is a relatively new method of creating cannabis oil. It involves using directly applied heat and pressure to extract the cannabinoids from the plant material. The resulting oil is pure and potent, with no residual solvents.
Each method of extraction has its own benefits and drawbacks. CO2 extraction is considered the most efficient and produces a very pure extract, but it also requires expensive equipment. Ethanol extraction is less expensive but can leave behind trace amounts of solvent in the final product. Olive oil extraction is the easiest and safest method, but it produces a less concentrated extract.
What Types of Cannabis Oil Are There?
The TGA splits cannabis oils into five categories: pure CBD (>98%), CBD dominant, balanced, THC dominant, pure THC (>98%). Beyond that, cannabis oils are split into full spectrum, broad spectrum and isolate varieties.
Pure and dominant THC oils contain high levels of THC, the psychotropic (i.e. intoxicating) compound in the cannabis plant, which means it can produce a “high” when consumed. In Australia, cannabis oil with THC is only available with a prescription from a doctor.
Pure and dominant CBD oils contain high levels of CBD, but very low levels of THC. CBD is a non-psychotropic compound, which means it does not produce a “high” when consumed. In Australia, low-dose CBD isolate oils are theoretically legal to buy over-the-counter at your local pharmacy, but the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has yet to approve any low-dose CBD oils for sale, so you’ll still need a doctor’s prescription to access them.
What’s the Difference Between THC and CBD Oil?
THC and CBD oil have different effects on the body and are used for different medicinal purposes. THC is known for its psychotropic effects and acts on the brain's dopamine and serotonin receptors. This can produce a “high” and alter perception and mood. CBD, on the other hand, acts purely on the endocannabinoid system (which does include the brain) but is not psychotropic.
Cannabis oil with THC is primarily being researched for its potential treatments of pain relief, nausea and insomnia, while CBD oil research is mostly focussed on anxiety, depression and epilepsy. THC oil can produce side effects such as dizziness, paranoia, and dry mouth, while CBD oil is generally well-tolerated with few side effects – although in certain patients it may cause nausea, irritability and fatigue.
For these reasons, the use of cannabis oil should always be done under the supervision of a medical professional. While cannabis oil has potential therapeutic benefits, it can also have side effects and interactions with other medications (which we’ll go into more below).
Full Spectrum, Broad Spectrum and Isolate Cannabis Oils
Beyond the THC and CBD content, there are also three different preparations of cannabis oil: full spectrum, broad spectrum and isolate.
Full spectrum cannabis oil contains all of the compounds found in the cannabis plant, including THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids, as well as terpenes and flavonoids. These compounds work together to create what is known as the "entourage effect," which is believed to enhance the therapeutic benefits of the oil.
Broad spectrum cannabis oil is similar to full spectrum oil in that it contains multiple cannabinoids and other compounds found in the cannabis plant. However, broad spectrum oil is typically processed to remove all traces of THC, making it a good option for those who want to avoid psychotropic effects.
Isolate cannabis oil, as the name suggests, is an oil that contains only one cannabinoid - typically CBD - and is free from all other compounds found in the cannabis plant. This type of oil is often preferred by those who want to avoid the potential psychotropic effects of THC.
Cannabis Oil for Pain Relief
One of the most commonly cited benefits of cannabis oil is pain relief. Preliminary research suggests that THC and CBD oil could have pain-relieving properties, and they may be effective at managing chronic pain conditions such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis and neuropathic pain. THC oil in particular has been shown to be effective in managing pain associated with cancer treatments.
Cannabis Oil for Anxiety
Another potential benefit of cannabis oil is anxiety reduction. CBD oil has been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety symptoms in people with conditions such as social anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some studies have also shown that THC oil may be effective in reducing anxiety, although high doses of THC may have the opposite effect and increase anxiety.
Cannabis Oil for Sleep
Cannabis oil may also be effective as a sleep aid. THC oil has been shown to improve sleep quality in people with conditions such as sleep apnea and chronic pain. CBD oil may also be effective in improving sleep quality and reducing insomnia symptoms.
Other Potential Health Benefits of Cannabis Oil
Some studies have suggested that cannabis oil may be effective in reducing inflammation, which is a contributing factor in many chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and inflammatory bowel disorders. Cannabis oil may also have neuroprotective properties and may be of benefit in the treatment of conditions such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.
It's important to note that research into the potential health benefits of cannabis oil is still in its early stages. While there is promising evidence to suggest that cannabis oil may be effective in managing a variety of conditions, more large-scale clinical trials are needed to confirm these findings.
Overview of Cannabis Laws in Australia
The legal status of cannabis oil in Australia is a complex issue, as the country has a patchwork of laws and regulations at the federal and state levels.
In Australia, cannabis is classified as a Schedule 8 drug, which means it is considered a controlled substance that has a high potential for abuse and addiction. However, individual states and territories have their own laws and regulations around cannabis and some states and territories have decriminalised small amounts of cannabis for personal use.
In 2016, the Australian government legalised the cultivation, production and prescription of medical cannabis. This allowed licensed companies to produce and distribute cannabis products for medical use in Australia, subject to stringent regulations.
In 2021, the TGA announced that low-dose 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 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. Until then, you'll still need a doctor's prescription to access CBD oil.
Getting a Prescription for Medical Cannabis Oil in Australia
If you are interested in get a cannabis oil prescription, there are several steps you'll need to take. First, you will need to speak with your healthcare professional to determine whether cannabis oil is an appropriate treatment option for your condition. If your healthcare professional believes that cannabis oil may be helpful, they can apply to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) for approval to prescribe medical cannabis.
Once the TGA has approved the use of medical cannabis in your treatment plan, your healthcare professional can provide you with a prescription for cannabis oil. You will then need to obtain the cannabis oil from a licensed Australian supplier. (Cannabis oil obtained from illegal sources is not only illegal but may also be dangerous and of poor quality.) A dedicated cannabis clinic can help streamline this process.
Eligibility for Cannabis Oil in Australia
In order to be eligible for cannabis oil or any kind of medical cannabis in Australia, you must have a qualifying medical condition. Qualifying conditions include conditions such as chronic pain, anxiety, ADHD, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Since legalisation, medical cannabis has been prescribed for more than 130 different conditions in Australia.
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.
Finally, not all patients with qualifying medical conditions will be eligible for medical cannabis in Australia. The decision to prescribe medical cannabis is ultimately up to the healthcare professional, who will consider factors such as their medical history, any adverse medicine interactions and the potential benefits and risks of treatment.
What Cannabis Oil Dosage Is Right For Me?
One of the most important considerations when using cannabis oil is dosage. The appropriate dosage will depend on several factors, including your body weight, the severity of your condition and your tolerance to cannabis.
It's important to start with a low dosage and gradually increase it over time. This minimises the risk of side effects and ensures that you are getting the optimal benefit from the treatment. Your healthcare professional will provide guidance on the appropriate dosage for your individual needs.
Potential Cannabis Oil Side Effects
Like any medication, cannabis oil can cause side effects. Some of the most common side effects of cannabis oil include dry mouth, dizziness and fatigue. Other potential side effects may include changes in appetite, mood and cognitive function. These side effects are more likely with THC-dominant cannabis oils.
While many people are able to tolerate cannabis oil without experiencing these effects (or at least to keep them at a manageable level), it's important to be aware of the potential risks and to speak with your doctor if you experience any concerning side effects.
Cannabis oil can also have adverse interactions with other medications, which can increase the risk of side effects or reduce their effectiveness. In particular, cannabis oil can interact with medications that are broken down by enzymes in the liver. This is because the same enzymes in the liver that break down medications also break down cannabis compounds.
You should also be careful if you’re taking medications that cause drowsiness, as the sedative properties of cannabis oil could exacerbate the effects. As always, talk to your doctor about any medications you are on before commencing cannabis care.
Is Cannabis Oil Right For Me?
Cannabis oil is a promising treatment option for a range of conditions, including chronic pain, anxiety, cancer-related nausea and appetite loss, epilepsy and sleep disorders. While cannabis oil is legal for medical use in Australia, patient eligibility is determined on a case-by-case basis and is only available for conditions that meet specific criteria. If deemed eligible, you’ll work closely with your doctor to determine the appropriate dosage, format and treatment plan.