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Medicinal cannabis in Australia

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


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Australians have had access to medicinal cannabis since 2016 when the federal government introduced legislation decriminalising the use and sale of medical cannabis, amending the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967. Since then, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) rescheduled a range of medicinal cannabis products to schedule 8, with cannabidiol (CBD) products as schedule 4 on the Poisons Standard (the SUSMP).

However, three years later there’s still plenty of confusion surrounding exactly what medicinal cannabis is, how it can be prescribed and what conditions it treats. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about medical cannabis in Australia.

What is medical cannabis?

Medicinal cannabis is prescribed by medical practitioners to relieve the symptoms of a medical condition. These pharmaceutical products use either cannabis plants or the chemicals they contain to treat people suffering from chronic or terminal illnesses.

Medicinal cannabis products currently available include raw cannabis which can be vaporised, cannabis extracts in oils, solvent extracts, gels and creams.

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

While the terms “marijuana” and “cannabis” are used interchangeably, the former has close associations with illegal or recreational use of the drug. As a result, legislators have decided on medicinal cannabis as the preferred term when referring to cannabis-based pharmaceuticals, which is the term this piece will use.

How can I access medical cannabis in Australia

If you think you'd benefit from being treated with medicinal cannabis, your options include:

  • Authorised Prescriber Scheme (AP). APs are medical practitioners that can prescribe drugs such as medicinal cannabis for the treatment of conditions without the need for approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
  • Special Access Scheme (SAS). SAS is available to medical practitioners who wish to treat patients with drugs such as medicinal cannabis that is not currently in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG).
  • Clinical trials. Clinical trials are how drugs are either approved or unapproved as having therapeutic good, as such you could try and get yourself into a trail of medicinal cannabis for your condition.

Other options for getting medical cannabis

For many other prescription drugs, patients import unapproved drugs for themselves or for their immediate family, provided the drug meets certain conditions. Unfortunately, medicinal cannabis is excluded from the Personal Importation Scheme. The good news is that there is the traveller's exemption.

What is the traveller's exemption?

The traveller's exemption basically means that if you are prescribed a therapeutic good for medical treatment overseas by a medical practitioner, you can carry up to 3 months' supply of that therapeutic good back to Australia under subregulation 5(2) of the Customs (Prohibited Import) Regulations 1956. It's important to note that these regulations can vary state to state, so be sure to check the relevant legislation.

Is medicinal cannabis covered by private health insurance?

As it stands, there is only one medicinal cannabis product listed on the ARTG, nabiximols. Normally, drugs that are approved by the TGA but are not yet included on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), can be claimed on your health insurance if your extras policy covers pharmacy for non-PBS items.

However, since further research needs to be done into the efficacy of medicinal cannabis as a first-line therapy, your health insurance won't cover the costs and you'll have to pay for your treatment out-of-pocket.

What conditions can medical cannabis 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 cannabis could help with:

Confirmed Treatments

Condition Treatment Source of Treatment
CBD THC Both Strength of evidence
AIDS/HIV Pain reduction Sativex High
Alzheimer’s Disease Appetite stimulation and weight gain Dronabinol (Marinol) High
Alzheimer's Disease Inhibition of neurodegeneration Injected (still in experimental phase) High
Arthritis Joint destruction suppression Oral or injected High
Nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy Reduce nausea and vomiting Oral: Nabilone and dronabinol (Marinol) Sativex High
Cancer Pain reduction Smoked Nabiximols High
Diabetic peripheral neuropathy Pain reduction Aerosolized, Oral: Nabilone High
Multiple Sclerosis Improve spasticity Oral: Dronabinol (Marinol) and Nabilone Sativex High
Anxiety and depression Improvement in mood scale Dronabinol (Marinol) and Nabilone Sativex High

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

Potential Treatments

Condition Treatment Source of Treatment
CBD THC Both Strength of evidence
Arthritis Symptomatic relief of joint pain Oral Moderate
Chronic non-cancer pain Pain reduction Oral mucosal cannabis spray Moderate
Epilepsy Reduction in seizure frequency CBD-enriched cannabis oil Moderate
Glaucoma Ocular therapeutic support Orally, intravenously, or inhalation Moderate
Schizophrenia Reduced psychotic symptoms Oral Low
Tourette syndrome Improvement in tic severity Capsules: Dronabinol and Nabilone Sativex Moderate
Inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn's disease) Decrease Crohn's disease Activity Index (CDAI) scores Smokeable Low
Sleep disorders Improvement in insomnia Nabilone Sativex Moderate

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

Is medical cannabis 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 cannabis 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 cannabis legal?

The use of cannabis 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 cannabis 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.

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