Medical cannabis comes in a wide variety of forms. The most common ways patients consume medical cannabis are concentrated oils, vaping the dried flower or using vape cartridges – but cannabis capsules, wafers, creams and ointments are options as well. Depending on your condition, experience level with cannabis and personal preference, you and your doctor should be able to find a formulation that works for you.
Here is a rundown of the medical cannabis currently available for prescription in Australia.
Cannabis oils are concentrated extracts that contain specific ratios of therapeutic compounds. The two main compounds in medical cannabis are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the psychotropic component of cannabis that causes a ‘high,’ whereas CBD doesn’t cause a high but may have a variety of health benefits. Oil is the most commonly prescribed form of cannabis in Australia.
Cannabis oils provide a tailored experience, as there are many oils available with different THC/CBD ratios. Some cannabis oils are isolates, meaning they contain only CBD or only THC, while others contain a balanced cannabinoid ratio with equal amounts of THC and CBD.
Oils come in three main categories.
Isolate – CBD or THC only, with all other cannabis compounds removed
Broad-spectrum – CBD and some other cannabis compounds such as terpenes and minor cannabinoids, but no THC
Full-spectrum – THC, CBD, terpenes, minor cannabinoids and more.
Cannabis oils come in a bottle with a measured dropper, allowing for easy and precise dosing. Your liver must first process cannabis oil after you ingest it, meaning the effects can take a long time – sometimes up to two hours – to appear. The effects will also last longer and usually peak at around 4 hours, lasting for up to 12.
If a doctor directs you to do so, you can place cannabis oil under your tongue and let it absorb into your mucous membranes where it will quickly enter the bloodstream. This will make the effects appear earlier compared to swallowing the oil.
Dried cannabis flower is the second most common prescription option in Australia, and is consumed with a dry herb vaporiser. Cannabis flowers are the part of the cannabis plant where most of the medical cannabinoids – THC and CBD – are located.
On a high-quality dried cannabis flower, you’ll notice a sugary white coating. This white coating is made up of trichomes: tiny glands that contain a high concentration of cannabinoids. Trichomes also contain terpenes, which are the compounds responsible for the taste and aroma of different cannabis strains. Certain terpenes may have some therapeutic value as well.
If you’re prescribed cannabis flower, you’ll need a dry herb vaporiser such as the Mighty Medic to inhale it. You may also want a herb grinder, so that you can grind your prescribed flower into an even powder and then add it to your dry herb vape.
Dry herb vapes allow you to heat the flower to a certain temperature with the device’s customisable temperature setting. Since different cannabinoids and terpenes have different boiling points, customising the temperature allows you to target specific cannabinoids and terpenes for a tailored experience.
When you vape medical cannabis, the effects appear nearly instantly. This makes vaping a great option for people who need immediate relief from acute pain or sudden anxiety attacks.
Instead of dry flower, vape cartridges or ‘carts,’ come prefilled with a liquid cannabis concentrate. You use vape carts with a vape battery, which are portable and easy-to-use devices that heat the concentrate to a temperature at which the plant’s active compounds begin to vaporise.
Most vape carts are full-spectrum products, meaning they contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and a variety of terpenes. Manufactures typically use a single strain to produce vape cart concentrates so that the effects and flavours closely resemble the dry flower equivalent. Some vape carts contain a distillate that is dominant in a specific cannabinoid, but this is less common.
Vape carts are a more affordable and compact way of vaping compared to dry herb vapes. Doctors are more likely to prescribe vape carts to people who might struggle to operate dry herb vapes due to fine motor difficulties or other conditions. Vape carts and batteries require less input from the user and screwing the vape cart into the battery is easier than having to grind and insert the dry flower.
Most vape carts and batteries will fit in your pocket, whereas dry herb vapes are larger and less discrete. Vape carts also require less cleaning, produce less odour and let you start vaping almost immediately, which is ideal if you need fast relief. Dry herb vapes typically require a short time to heat up to the desired temperature.
Vape carts and batteries are also more affordable than dry herb vapes, which often cost hundreds of dollars. By contrast a vape cart battery typically only costs around $50, although it may only last you 6-12 months, depending on how frequently you use it.
Cannabis Creams & Topicals
Cannabis creams are a novel option that may suit you if you experience localised pain. Being able to directly apply the cream to a painful area might offer more pronounced relief.
Cannabis creams, lotions, transdermal patches, balms, ointments and gels all fall under the umbrella of cannabis topicals. No matter what consistency or cannabinoid content your doctor prescribes, the direction is almost always to apply the product directly to the skin.
Cannabis cream is mostly prescribed for chronic pain. This may include joint pain, muscular pain, endometriosis or discomfort caused by skin conditions such as psoriasis.
Most cannabis creams contain only CBD, but some also contain THC. Cannabis creams and topicals tend to reach their peak effect 1.4 hours after application and may last for up to 48 hours.
Capsules, Lozenges & Other Forms
Some patients prefer a form of cannabis that is quick and easy to consume. Cannabis capsules, lozenges and wafers come prefilled with specific amounts of CBD and/or THC, so you’ll know exactly what you’re consuming.
Cannabis capsules are ingested orally and have a slow onset with a long duration. Capsules are highly convenient, giving patients an option that's ready to go and precisely dosed, while other formats such as dried flower require some preparation.
Some people with chronic pain conditions find that ingested forms of medical cannabis such as capsules provide longer and more pronounced relief. The same applies to people with sleep issues – the prolonged effects of ingested cannabis might help people fall and stay asleep for longer.
Cannabis wafers and lozenges are designed to be placed under your tongue where they will dissolve and enter your system. A cannabis lozenge is a small, hard tablet, just like the lozenges you’d take for a sore throat. You place the tablet under your tongue and let it dissolve. Cannabis wafers work similarly. They’re small thin strips that, when placed under your tongue, dissolve very quickly.
Are Cannabis Edibles A Prescription Option In Australia?
Edible cannabis such as gummies and brownies aren’t a common prescription option in Australia, despite their popularity overseas. Cannabis oils and capsules, however, are commonly prescribed and our bodies process them in a very similar way to edibles. This means that much of the information about cannabis edibles also applies to oils and capsules. Unregistered cannabis edibles are notorious for causing unpleasant experiences, because it’s often difficult or impossible to know their THC content, which is often very high.
It’s hard to tell whether traditional cannabis edibles will eventually become a common prescription option in Australia. Before a medical cannabis product can become available for prescription, it must first be registered with the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). There are some registered ingestible cannabis products in Australia, but most cannabis edibles in the form of food or gummies remain unregistered.
Am I Eligible For A Medical Cannabis Prescription?
If you’re interested in medical cannabis, book an appointment with your healthcare provider or a medical cannabis clinic. To be eligible for a prescription, whether it’s oil, flower or a different form, you need to have tried some traditional treatment options and found them to be ineffective or that they caused unmanageable side effects.
In your initial consultation, your doctor will assess you and your condition and suggest an appropriate form of medical cannabis. Your comfort and level of experience with cannabis will also influence which product you’re prescribed if eligible.