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Medicinal cannabis comes as a pill, oil, nasal spray or some other form of cannabis plant extract. It is used to relieve the symptoms of some medical conditions. Medicinal cannabis is being researched worldwide due to its potential to help a number of conditions, but its use is very highly regulated in Australia.
What is medicinal cannabis?
Medicinal cannabis is made from the cannabis sativa plant. The leaves and buds of this plant are also used to make the drug marijuana, which people use to get high. Medicinal cannabis is sometimes referred to as medical cannabis or medical marijuana.
Cannabis has been shown to relieve pain, prevent or reduce vomiting, and it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. This is because substances called cannabinoids act on the body’s endocannabinoid system. This is a communications system in the brain and body that influences mood, memory, sleep and appetite.
The cannabis plant contains 80 to 100 cannabinoids. The one that gets people high is called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Other cannabinoids have been shown to relieve symptoms of disease. International research is looking at the therapeutic properties of some of the other cannabinoids.
The side effects of medicinal cannabis are still being studied. They may include:
- difficulty concentrating
- problems with balance
- problems with thinking and memory
Medicinal cannabis is tightly regulated. Products approved for use in Australia include nabiximols and synthetic cannabinoids. These products are formulated so they have the greatest medical effect and the fewest possible side effects.
In some countries, crude cannabis (raw cannabis plant material) and cannabis oil are used as therapies. These are both illegal in Australia.
Who might benefit from medicinal cannabis?
There hasn’t been enough research yet to prove the benefits of medicinal cannabis. But it is showing promise for some people with chronic or terminal illnesses who don’t get relief from other medicines, or to help control some of the side effects caused by other medicines.
Researchers are investigating the use of medicinal cannabis for:
How can I access medicinal cannabis?
Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) regulates the supply of medicinal cannabis. Doctors can apply to the TGA to supply medicinal cannabis to certain patients through the Authorised Prescriber Scheme and the Special Access Scheme. Patients may be able to access medicinal cannabis through a specialist doctor, their GP, or if they are taking part in a clinical trial.
You cannot apply to the TGA to get medicinal cannabis yourself; only your doctor can apply. The doctor must meet certain requirements, must obtain permits, and must also comply with relevant state laws. However, the laws are different in each state and this may affect whether you can get access to medicinal cannabis.
You can check the laws in your state by visiting:
The Australian Government recently changed the law to allow organisations to grow cannabis for research and to make pharmaceutical products. Growing cannabis yourself or using it for non-medical purposes is still illegal.
Do not try to import cannabis products or smoke ‘street’ marijuana to try to treat your symptoms. As well as this being illegal, you have no control over the dose or what is in the product. Also, there hasn’t been research into any side effects, and any form of smoking can give you cancer.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Could medicinal cannabis help my condition?
- Is it safe for me to use?
- Will it affect my other medications?
- Are there any side effects?
You can also use healthdirect’s Question Builder to prepare a list of questions that can be printed or emailed, so you remember what you want to ask.
Marijuana, also called cannabis, is a drug that’s made of the leaves, flowers, and buds of the cannabis plant. Medical marijuana can help treat symptoms like pain, nausea, and lack of appetite. It may be used by people who have health problems like cancer, AIDS, or multiple sclerosis.
Is medical marijuana helpful and safe?
Medical use of marijuana has been studied for decades. But experts still don’t agree on how safe it is or how well it works.
Some experts don’t recommend marijuana because:
- It’s not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
- It may impair your memory, judgment, and coordination. It can increase your risk of being in a car crash.
- Marijuana smoke may harm your lungs.
- There are legal drugs that may work just as well, like new kinds of pain and nausea medicines.
Other experts recommend marijuana because:
- It can help relieve pain when normal pain medicines have unwanted side effects or don’t work.
- It can improve appetite and relieve nausea in people who have cancer or AIDS.
- It may help relieve symptoms such as pain and muscle stiffness from multiple sclerosis.
Be sure to let your doctor know if you’re using medical marijuana. If you’re pregnant, it’s not safe to use marijuana.
What are the risks?
Marijuana can interact with other medicines. It can be dangerous if you use it with medicines that make you sleepy or control your mood. These include sedatives, anxiety drugs, antidepressants, and opioids. And it can be dangerous to use marijuana with alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs.
Marijuana raises your chance of bleeding if you’re on blood thinners. And it can affect your blood pressure. So use caution if you take blood pressure medicine.
Talk to your doctor about other medicines you use before you try marijuana. And talk to your doctor about any personal or family history of substance use disorders or mental health problems. Using marijuana may make these problems worse.
Marijuana may affect your judgment, memory, and concentration. And it may affect your coordination and decision-making. Do not drive or operate machinery after you use marijuana. Talk with your doctor about when it’s safe to drive.
Long-term use of marijuana may increase your risk for severe nausea and vomiting. This is called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, or CHS. People who have CHS may feel very thirsty. They may have belly pain and diarrhea. They may vomit more than 20 times a day. Bouts of vomiting may last more than 24 hours.
Some people who use marijuana may develop cannabis use disorder. This can range from mild to severe. The more signs of this disorder you have, the more severe it may be. When it’s severe, it’s sometimes called addiction. People who have it may find it hard to control their use. And they may keep using marijuana even though it’s having harmful effects on their life.
The risk of this disorder is higher in people who:
- Start using marijuana when they’re young.
- Use it every day.
- Have other substance use disorders and mental health problems.
People who use marijuana often and then quit may have withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms include anxiety, trouble sleeping, and intense cravings for the drug.
If you smoke marijuana, the smoke could damage your lungs. It may make you cough or wheeze. And it may cause lung infections like bronchitis.
If you use medical marijuana and are pregnant (or think you might be) or you are breastfeeding, talk to your doctor. It can affect your baby’s development.
How do you use medical marijuana?
People can smoke medical marijuana. They can also:
- Brew it into tea.
- Inhale it as a vapor.
- Spray it under the tongue.
- Apply it to the skin.
- Eat it in prepared or homemade foods.
There are many types, or strains, of marijuana. Some strains are much stronger or have different kinds of effects than others. Talk to your health care provider or to the staff at the dispensary (sometimes called a budtender). They can tell you about the different strains you can try for your condition.
You may feel the effects for hours after you use the drug. How soon you feel them and how long they last can depend on many things. These include:
- How much of the drug you used.
- How you took it.
- How long you’ve been taking it.
- How your body responds to it.
Some people use medical marijuana after trying other common medicines.
Are there alternatives to medical marijuana?
Doctors can prescribe two legal alternatives to medical marijuana. They are dronabinol (Marinol) and nabilone (Cesamet). Both of these drugs contain a man-made form of THC, the main chemical in marijuana.
Nabilone is used to relieve nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy. Dronabinol also can relieve this kind of nausea and vomiting. It may also improve the appetite of people who have AIDS. Both of these drugs can be used to relieve pain and spasticity from multiple sclerosis. Both drugs come in pill form.
Talk to your doctor if you think these medicines might help relieve your symptoms.
What is synthetic marijuana?
Synthetic marijuana is made of dried plant material that is treated with chemicals that produce effects like marijuana’s effects. It is sold in the form of incense under many names, such as K2 or Spice. The labels often claim that these products are “safe” or “natural.” But in fact, the active chemicals are created in a lab. And they have not been tested for safety.
But young people often try these products because they are easy to buy and they may not be detected by drug tests.
People think that using these drugs will make them feel the same as when they use marijuana. But these drugs are stronger than marijuana. And the effects are hard to predict. That’s because the type and strength of the chemicals used are often unknown. Some people have reported severe symptoms, such as:
- Fast heart rate and high blood pressure.
- Feeling agitated or confused.
- Feeling like others want to harm them (paranoia), or seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations).
Current as of: November 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson MD – Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD – Family Medicine