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What You Need to Know About Medicinal Cannabis

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Note: The information given on this page is not medical advice and should not be relied on in this way. Individuals wanting medical advice on this issue should consult a health professional.

What is medicinal cannabis?

Broadly speaking, medicinal cannabis is cannabis prescribed to relieve the symptoms of a medical condition. It’s important to distinguish between medicinal and recreational cannabis. Recreational cannabis is the form that people use to get ‘high’.1

For some people with chronic or terminal illnesses, conventional medicines don’t work or may work but cause debilitating side effects. For these people, medicinal cannabis may offer an alternative treatment option.

What are cannabinoids?

The main psychoactive ingredient of cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which acts on specific receptors in the brain known as cannabinoid or CB1 receptors.3

Research has found that the cannabis plant produces between 80 and 100 cannabinoids and about 300 non-cannabinoid chemicals. The two main cannabinoids that have therapeutic benefits are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). There have been claims that other cannabinoids have therapeutic properties, but these have not yet been proven.1

The main difference between the two cannabinoids is that THC has strong psychoactive effects, meaning it makes a person ‘high’, whereas CBD is thought to have an anti-psychoactive effect that controls or moderates the ‘high’ caused by the THC. CBD is also thought to reduce some of the other negative effects that people can experience from THC, such as anxiety.4

The psychoactive effects of THC, such as euphoria and feeling relaxed or sleepy, are well known, but it also has analgesic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as well as preventing and reducing vomiting.1

Research is being conducted into CBD for its potential to treat epilepsy, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, some tumours, and drug dependency.1

The endocannabinoid system

The endocannabinoid system is a unique communications system in the brain and body that affects many important functions.5 It’s made up of natural molecules known as cannabinoids, and the pathways they interact with. Together, these parts work to regulate activities like mood, memory, sleep and appetite. It is thought that medicinal cannabis can treat various illnesses by acting on the endocannabinoid system.6

Special Access Scheme

There are tight restrictions around the manufacture, supply and use of medicinal cannabis within Australia. However, laws exist to allow the prescribing and dispensing of medicinal cannabis products in specific circumstances.

Visit the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) website for important patient information relating to medicinal cannabis.

Further information on medicinal cannabis


  1. Victorian Law Reform Commission (2015). Medicinal Cannabis. Retrieved from the Victorian Law Reform Commission.
  2. Rattenbury, S. (2014). ACT Greens Medicinal Cannabis Discussion Paper.
  3. Hall, W. (2015). US policy responses to calls for the medical use of cannabis. Journal of Biology and Medicine 88: 257-264.
  4. Mechoulam R. Cannabis—a valuable drug that deserves better treatment. InMayo Clinic Proceedings 2012 Feb 1 (Vol. 87, No. 2, pp. 107-109). Elsevier.
  5. NSW Parliament. (2000) Report of the Working Party on the Use of Cannabis for Medical Purposes. Sydney: NSW Parliament.
  6. Scholastic. (2011). The science of the endocannabinoid system: how THC affects the brain and the body.
  7. Belackova V, Ritter A, Shanahan M, Chalmers J, Hughes C, Barratt M & Lancaster K. (2015). Medicinal cannabis in Australia: framing the regulatory options.
  8. American Lung Association; Marijuana and Lung Health. [Chicago, United States]:  [updated 2015 March 23; cited 2019 March 15].Callaghan, R. C., Allebeck, P., Sidorchuk, A. (2013) Marijuana use and risk of lung cancer: a 40-year cohort study. Cancer Causes Control, 24, 1811–1820.Schwartz, D.A. Int J Ment Health Addiction (2018) 16: 797.
  9. Therapeutic Goods Administration. (2018). Guidance for the use of medicinal cannabis in Australia: Patient information: The side effects of medicinal cannabis treatment
  10. Health Department, Australian Government. (2016). Narcotic Drug Amendment Bill 2016 public information paper.
  11. Parliament of Australia. (2016). Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016.