Cannabis is relatively unique in the medical landscape in that one of the active ingredients (THC) is both a prescribed medicine and an illegal recreational drug. This can lead to some uncomfortable situations.
Even though you’re legally allowed to use medical cannabis while travelling interstate, working or going for a walk to the shops – like any other prescription medication – many patients won’t take their medical marijuana out of the house for fear of having a run-in with the police or border security or their employer. (The main exception to this is driving, which remains illegal with any amount of THC in your system in every state except Tasmania.)
Why It’s Important to Have a Medical Marijuana Card
Medical cannabis cards are a concept inherited from America, where they’ve had almost 30 years to iron out the kinks in medical cannabis prescription. While in America, marijuana cards (or weed cards) are a legal government document, here in Australia the only official proof you’re given is the prescription document itself.
Some cannabis clinics have introduced cannabis cards to try and fill this gap. While not a legal document, these cards can give patients a simple additional way to demonstrate that they are entitled to carry and use the cannabis products in their possession.
However, as cannabis cards aren’t legally recognised you'll still need to carry your medication in its original packaging with the pharmacy labels intact.
What Information is on a Medical Cannabis Card?
A cannabis card will usually contain your name and Patient ID, along with your date of birth and the date your card was issued. The card will also explain that you have been approved to use medical marijuana for your diagnosed condition and includes the clinic's contact details in case someone needs to verify your information.
How Can I Get A Medical Marijuana Card in Australia?
It probably goes without saying, but you can’t get a medical cannabis card without a medical cannabis prescription. And in order to get a medical cannabis prescription, you first need to talk to a doctor.
Your doctor will ask you questions about your medical history, current symptoms and any treatments you may have already tried. Medical cannabis can only currently be prescribed for people suffering from a chronic condition (i.e. a condition that has lasted for longer than 3 months) that has proven resistant to other treatments. If your doctor thinks that your condition might benefit from medical cannabis, they'll create a treatment plan and write a prescription for you.
Why Is Medical Cannabis An Alternative Treatment?
Cannabis is still considered an “alternative” treatment, meaning that it should only be prescribed when other treatment methods have failed. This doesn’t mean you need to have tried every other treatment, only that you’ve tried other treatments – whether pharmaceutical or non-pharmaceutical – and your condition has failed to respond or that the side effects of the treatment were too unpleasant.
Medical cannabis is considered an alternative treatment due to its status with the TGA. Basically, the TGA separates prescription medicines into two categories.
Registered: medicines that have an extensive history of usage and research and have proven their efficacy in both research and clinical settings.
Unregistered: medicines that are yet to be fully approved by the TGA due to their newness or a lack of high quality research.
In Australia there are only two registered cannabis medicines – a CBD oil for the treatment of two rare forms of epilepsy and a CBD/THC oil for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.
However there are now more than 130 different conditions for which unregistered medical cannabis products can be prescribed, thanks to the Authorised Prescriber and Special Access Scheme pathways.
What Are The Special Access Scheme & Authorised Prescriber Pathways?
The SAS and AP pathways are the two mechanisms that allow doctors to prescribe medicines that are yet to be wholly approved by the TGA.
The SAS lets doctors apply for individual patients to be prescribed unapproved medicines if they meet certain criteria. Prescriptions are made on a case-by-case basis and require doctors to submit a treatment plan to the TGA. The vast majority of medical cannabis prescriptions in Australia occur through the SAS.
Authorised Prescribers are doctors that have applied directly to the TGA to be given authority to prescribe unapproved medicines to a particular class of patients. In order to be considered for the AP pathway, these medicines must have a significant body of research behind them that falls just short of justifying full approval.
How Much Does Medical Marijuana Cost In Australia?
The cost of medical cannabis varies depending on the form and dosage prescribed by your doctor. However, as most medical cannabis prescriptions aren’t covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (which generally only applies to drugs that have been fully approved by the TGA), you’ll have to pay your medication costs out-of-pocket.
The average cost for patients is around $250-$300 per month. This is in addition to the cost of your initial consultation with the prescribing doctor, which tends to range from $80-$150.
What If I Already Have Experience With Cannabis?
It’s no secret that cannabis has been available on the streets in Australia for a long time. If you have previous experience with marijuana – either as a recreational user or as a self-medicator – let your doctor know as they will take this into account when deciding what prescription will work best for you.
You may also wonder if there’s any difference between illegal marijuana and medical cannabis. While they’re the same plant, medical cannabis has been cultivated for its medicinal characteristics, meaning there’s a focus on creating specific THC/CBD levels and unique cannabinoid and terpene profiles.
Medical cannabis is also available in a wide variety of formats, from dried flower to oils, lozenges and even creams. All medical cannabis products go through rigorous testing to confirm every flower, capsule and container is free from contamination, mould or lingering solvent residues. By comparison, street weed isn’t tested or controlled, so you never know how strong it is, how it’s been grown or what additives might be found within it.
Can I Smoke Medical Marijuana In Australia?
According to the TGA, there are only two approved ways to consume medical cannabis: taking cannabis oil orally; and vaporising dry flower. Vaporising is different from smoking. When you vaporise marijuana, you don’t actually burn it – you merely heat it until the cannabinoids and terpenes begin evaporating. This results in more efficient and accurate dosing, as well as reducing the carcinogenic risks associated with inhaling smoke.
You’re allowed to vape in any area where you’d also be allowed to smoke. So, no vaping at the cinema, but fine at the park. However, even in smoking areas you’re still liable to public nuisance laws – if someone complains about your vaping to the police, they can tell you to stop or (if you continue to vape after this instruction) charge you with creating a public disturbance.
Can I Fly With Medical Marijuana In Australia?
If you have a medical cannabis prescription, you are entitled to carry and use your prescribed products anywhere that you would be able to carry and use other prescription medicines – basically, everywhere. While you won’t be allowed to vape on a plane, as long as you have the original prescription document and product packaging you can bring your medical cannabis with you wherever you travel in Australia.
Note that this does not cover international travel. Once you leave Australia you’re subject to the laws of whatever country you travel through, so make sure you do your research before getting on an international flight with your medical cannabis prescription in your luggage.
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 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 telehealth 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.