Medical Cannabis Prescription in Australia: A Look Under The Hood

Why medical marijuana laws are so complex

In 2016, the Australian government legalised cannabis for medical use. But legalization has not translated to easy access to medical marijuana, given the many layers of complex bureaucracy involved. These complexities stem, in part, from the lack of conclusive evidence on what type of marijuana products are effective in the management of specific conditions. 

Basically, access to medical marijuana in Australia depends on the inputs of an 'Authorised Prescriber’ or participation in the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s (TGA) 'Special Access Scheme’. Although the prescription rate has increased and sped up in the past year, the process could still be a lot faster than it currently is.


Prescription approvals have increased on a month-by month basis, suggesting improvements in patient access. However, the process is still complex and could be a lot faster. Source

The TGA is the drug law enforcement arm of the Australian government, mandated to regulate access to medical cannabis. The TGA requires a doctor to apply for approval of ‘unregistered medicines’ (which essentially includes most cannabis products) for the treatment of a patient's ailment. That means you can't just get a doctor's prescription for medical cannabis and head to a pharmacy to fill supplies.

The prescribing doctor also needs to seek the permission of the Health Department of the patient's State or Territory of residence. To boot, each state has its unique version of medical cannabis laws that determines who gets what cannabis products within its borders.

For instance, in New South Wales (NSW), there's no limit to the range of medical conditions for which doctors can prescribe cannabis for patients, while Victoria only allows prescriptions for epilepsy in children. In Southern Australia and Western Australia, prescriptions can only be made for terminal or chronic ailments, and doctors in Queensland and Tasmania can only prescribe for patients who’re unresponsive to contemporary treatments. The Northern Territory stands by federal medical cannabis regulations.


What exactly is medical marijuana according to Australian laws?

The federal government's medical cannabis law describes medical marijuana as marijuana products prescribed by a physician to aid the management of certain medical conditions. Medical marijuana can come in various forms, from whole plants to extracts, gels, creams, edibles, etc. They’re usually prescribed for the treatment of rare or terminal conditions, and not for any conventional illnesses. The prescribing physician needs to convince the government with clinical evidence to support their prescription.

In fact due to lack of clinical evidence on the use of cannabis in the management of certain symptoms, many medical practitioners avoid staking their reputation to prescribe the drug. 


What symptoms can medical marijuana help alleviate effectively?

Medical marijuana shows greater prospects of treating certain conditions than others. There are several clinical trials of the drug underway in Australia that are focused primarily on how cannabis can help alleviate the nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy and HIV/AIDS, alleviate different types of pain, and relieve symptoms associated with palliative care.

However, substantial medical evidence has emerged supporting the efficacy of marijuana in the treatment of certain conditions, including:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle spasm
  • Chronic pain
  • Severe epilepsy


How to access medical cannabis legally in Australia


The lengthy process for accessing medical marijuana in Western Australia. Source

To access medical marijuana legally in Australia, you must enlist the assistance of a medical practitioner. Medical practitioners can prescribe the drug if they can determine the effectiveness of the drug in treating your condition. Medical practitioners can use three methods to help patients obtain medical cannabis:

  • Special Access Scheme (SAS): This is a program run by the Australian government through the TGA to determine who gets what type of medical cannabis product in the country. To use this method, the prescribing doctor needs to provide clinical evidence of the effectiveness of cannabis in the management of your condition. The physician must also state the type of cannabis product, the dosage, and delivery system that can soothe your condition.
  • Authorized Prescriber (AP): Alternatively, a medical practitioner can apply to become an 'Authorised Prescriber’. If approved, the medical practitioner is given a broader authorization to prescribe cannabis to a class of patients. As with the first method, the physician needs to provide clinical evidence, and identify the exact medical marijuana product, the dosage, and the delivery method appropriate for the symptoms faced by a class of patients.
  • Clinical trials: In cases where there are no clinical evidence to support the use of cannabis in managing a certain ailment, you still have the option to apply for access for clinical trials. This alternative requires you to convince a physician that you could be a subject for a clinical trial. You might also need to arrange for your health funds to cover the trial.


Conclusion

Despite medical cannabis being legal in Australia, obtaining the drug is a bit difficult. However, the process is a lot easier now than it was a year ago, as the TGA took some steps to streamline the process, chief among them being the creation of an online portal. Nevertheless, the process is a bit complex and may have too many requirements. In addition to the Australian government’s policies, the states have their separate, differing processes for cannabis prescriptions. This further complicates matters, and perhaps should be the first are of focus where further streamlining of the prescription process is concerned.