cannabis plant

Medical marijuana in Australia

Where is medical marijuana legal in Australia? Find out here.

In 2016, the federal government introduced legislation to decriminalise the use and sale of medical marijuana. However, there’s still plenty of confusion surrounding exactly what medicinal cannabis is, how it can be prescribed and what conditions it can be used to treat.

Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about medical marijuana in Australia.

What is medical marijuana?

Medicinal cannabis is cannabis prescribed by a medical practitioner to relieve the symptoms of a medical condition. These pharmaceutical products use either the cannabis plant or the chemicals it contains to treat people suffering from chronic or terminal illnesses.

A wide range of medicinal cannabis products are currently available, including raw cannabis which can be vaporised, cannabis extracts in oils, solvent extracts, gels and creams.

Medicinal cannabis vs medical marijuana: What’s the difference?

Before we go any further, let’s get an important distinction out of the way. While the terms “marijuana” and “cannabis” can more or less be used interchangeably, the former has close associations with illegal recreational use of the drug. As a result, legislators have decided on medicinal cannabis as the preferred term when referring to cannabis-based pharmaceuticals. This piece will refer to the more commonly used term medical marijuana to mean medicinal cannabis.

What conditions can medical marijuana be used to treat?

A series of clinical trials to determine the efficacy of medicinal cannabis in the treatment of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, nausea resulting from chemotherapy and HIV/AIDS therapy, pain management and palliative care are underway in Australia. In the meantime, there is some medical evidence to suggest that medicinal cannabis may be suitable to treat:

  • Severe muscle spasms and other symptoms of multiple sclerosis
  • Severe seizures caused by epilepsy
  • Severe nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy
  • Severe nausea, vomiting or wasting due to HIV, AIDS or cancer
  • Severe chronic pain
  • Palliative care

According to the Medicinal Cannabis in Australia: Science, Regulation & Industry White Paper, here are some conditions that current research shows that medical marijuana could help with:

Confirmed Treatments

ConditionTreatmentSource of Treatment
CBDTHCBothStrength of evidence
AIDS/HIVPain reductionSativexHigh
Alzheimer’s DiseaseAppetite stimulation and weight gainDronabinol (Marinol)High
Alzheimer's DiseaseInhibition of neurodegenerationInjected (still in experimental phase)High
ArthritisJoint destruction suppressionOral or injectedHigh
Nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapyReduce nausea and vomitingOral: Nabilone and dronabinol (Marinol)SativexHigh
CancerPain reductionSmokedNabiximolsHigh
Diabetic peripheral neuropathyPain reductionAerosolized, Oral: NabiloneHigh
Multiple SclerosisImprove spasticityOral: Dronabinol (Marinol) and NabiloneSativexHigh
Anxiety and depressionImprovement in mood scaleDronabinol (Marinol) and NabiloneSativexHigh

Source: Medicinal Cannabis in Australia: Science, Regulation and Industry

Potential Treatments

ConditionTreatmentSource of Treatment
CBDTHCBothStrength of evidence
ArthritisSymptomatic relief of joint painOralModerate
Chronic non-cancer painPain reductionOral mucosal cannabis sprayModerate
EpilepsyReduction in seizure frequencyCBD-enriched cannabis oilModerate
GlaucomaOcular therapeutic supportOrally, intravenously, or inhalationModerate
SchizophreniaReduced psychotic symptomsOralLow
Tourette syndromeImprovement in tic severityCapsules: Dronabinol and NabiloneSativexModerate
Inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn's disease)Decrease Crohn's disease Activity Index (CDAI) scoresSmokeableLow
Sleep disordersImprovement in insomniaNabiloneSativexModerate

Source: Medicinal Cannabis in Australia: Science, Regulation and Industry

Is medical marijuana legal in Australia?

The short answer is yes, but each state has different laws to govern the use of medicinal cannabis. Victoria was the first cab off the rank to introduce legislation to legalise the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, but the other states and territories weren’t far behind. Check the details below for more information about how to access medicinal cannabis where you live.

  • NSW. Doctors in NSW can prescribe medicinal cannabis as part of a clinical trial or under the Special Access or Authorised Prescriber Schemes administered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. There are no limits to the symptoms and conditions for which a medicinal cannabis product may be prescribed. Check with the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research and Innovation for further details.
  • ACT. Doctors in the ACT can apply to the ACT Chief Health Officer for approval to prescribe cannabis products as “schedule 8” controlled medicines. Those medications can be used to treat spasticity in multiple sclerosis, nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, pain and anxiety in patients with a life-limiting disease and a life expectancy of less than 12 months, and refractory paediatric epilepsy. Visit the ACT Health website for more info.
  • Victoria. Under the Victorian Access to Medicinal Cannabis Scheme and the Access to Medicinal Cannabis Act 2016, the first group of patients eligible to apply for medicinal cannabis is children with intractable epilepsy, under the care of a specialist paediatric neurologist. Check health.vic for details of when more patient groups will be added.
  • Queensland. Under the Public Health (Medicinal Cannabis) Act 2016, Queensland doctors can prescribe medicinal cannabis to patients who suffer a range of conditions for which conventional treatments have either failed or caused intolerable side effects. Conditions include multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy and chemotherapy. Contact Queensland Health for more details.
  • SA. Since November 2016, South Australian medical practitioners have been able to prescribe “schedule 8” medicinal cannabis products for therapeutic use. The conditions it can be used to treat include multiple sclerosis, nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, and intractable epilepsy in children. More information is available from SA Health.
  • WA. Since November 2016, specialist doctors in Western Australia have been able to prescribe medicinal cannabis for certain conditions, such as terminally ill patients and for those suffering from a chronic condition. Visit the WA Government’s Department of Health for more information.
  • NT. Patients in the Northern Territory can access medicinal cannabis through doctors who are authorised under the Special Access or Authorised Prescriber Schemes administered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Visit the Department of Health website for full details.
  • Tasmania. Under the Tasmanian Government’s medical cannabis controlled access scheme (CAS) launched in September 2017, specialists can prescribe medical cannabis where conventional treatment has been unsuccessful. Contact the Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services for full details.

cannabis buds

Is recreational marijuana legal?

The use of marijuana for non-medicinal purposes is still illegal in Australia. In January 2018, the Australian Government announced its intention to develop amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 which will regulate the cultivation of marijuana for scientific and medicinal purposes. However cannabis is still a highly regulated drug in Australia, and use, possession or cultivation for non-medical purposes can lead to criminal or civil penalties.

How can I access medical marijuana, and will it be covered by my health insurance?

If you’re eligible to access medicinal cannabis, you can only do so through your treating doctor or specialist. If they believe that cannabis could be beneficial for the treatment of your condition, they will need to choose a medicinal cannabis product to prescribe.

They will then need to gain approval from the Commonwealth Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and the health department in your state or territory to integrate the new medication into your treatment plan. For more information, you will need to talk to your doctor or specialist or contact the department of health in your state or territory.

If you're not eligible for medicinal marijuana as a treatment, there might still be still legal options to access it, such as clinical trials. Your best bet is to talk to your doctor to see if you would be a candidate for a clinical trial, or if your health fund would consider covering pain management as part of your extras cover.

Compare your health insurance options from 30+ health funds

Tim Falk

A freelance writer with a passion for the written word, Tim loves helping Australians find the right home loans and savings accounts. When he's not chained to a computer, Tim can usually be found exploring the great outdoors.

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