Cannabis has proven therapeutic qualities and this has been recognised by Australian authorities since February 2016. The Department of Health has established a legal path for patients to access medical cannabis through a Special Access Scheme.

Last weekend, Brisbane hosted the Cannabis and Hemp Expo which showcased the latest developments in medical, culinary, beauty, textile, and construction products made of cannabis that are available in the Australian marketplace. At the expo, a team of doctors and researchers were providing information about the medical use of cannabis.

I spoke all things medical cannabis with Dr John Teh, director of PlantMed Medicinal Cannabis, a registered Medicinal Cannabis clinic. Dr Teh is a medical doctor and an educator, as well as a permaculture expert. Here are my takeaways from the conversation with Dr Teh.

Medical cannabis can be legally prescribe for a wide range of conditions which are assessed on a case-by-case basis. Dr Teh told me that there are no set rules around what medical cannabis can be prescribed for, and the case for access rests on proving that pharmaceutical medications have not been effective in treating the symptoms that the patient shows. The prescribing doctor then has to prove that there are medical studies conducted on humans (and not animals) which show that cannabis helps improving the symptoms affecting the patient. Dr Teh has prescribed medical cannabis for conditions as diverse as inflammatory conditions, pain of all varieties, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, anxiety, depression, insomnia, autism spectrum disorder, and alcohol abuse among others. He concluded that,

“If your cannabis doctor believes that you can get benefit it [from medical cannabis] and they can prove it, then you are eligible to be prescribed cannabis legally in Australia.”  

Individuals interested in applying for medical cannabis must go through registered health practitioners such as PlantMed Medicinal Cannabis and any other authorised prescriber. This has to follow a GP referral. The authorised prescribers will file the application for approval to the State and Federal Government and responsibility for prescribing falls on them – and not on the GP. This is important to emphasise because as Dr Teh told me, some GPs are reluctant to refer patients to cannabis doctors because they do not want to bear the responsibility. PlantMed offers advice to GPs around the area of responsibility and the process of referral. Individuals interested in medical cannabis can be empowered by asking their GP to be referred to cannabis doctor and if their GP is unsure, they can contact cannabis educators such as Dr Teh.

Cannabis that patients receive for medical use is subjected to quality tests. This is the major difference between cannabis sourced through the legal pathway and that sourced illicitly. Cannabis used for legal medical purposes is tested for impurities such as herbicide, fungicide, fungus, and moulds that can be bad for the body. It is controlled for contaminants, and sourced organically when possible.

Medical cannabis is different from recreational cannabis only in the intention of use. Medical cannabis is used to treat symptoms of an existing conditions, mostly in the areas of pain, inflammation, and mood disorders. Recreational cannabis is used for fun, pleasure, and leisure. And yet, because of existing restrictions around recreational use, quality is the major difference between medical and recreational cannabis. For those wanting to use cannabis for recreational use, their only way to source it is through illicit ways, which means that the product cannot be guaranteed for quality.

There is still social stigma around the use of cannabis, both for medical and recreational use. While the existence of an access pathway for medical cannabis shows that important progress has been made, recreational use remains demonised and illegal. Dr Teh explained that recreation should be seen as an activity pertaining to health and well-being. Recreation is an act of self-care. Cannabis is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, and yet, these two are socially accepted recreational drugs. Common perception associates recreational cannabis with mania, but Dr Teh reports that there is no proven correlation. Maniac cases can manifest themselves only if there is a pre-existing condition and they can be triggered by a number of different reasons. Furthermore, Dr Teh emphasised that cannabis has been proven to help recover from addiction, and therefore it is an “exit drug” rather than a gateway to drugs.

The field of medical cannabis is developing fast. Among the promising directions that Dr Teh identifies are the more efficient bureaucracy and novel methods for administration. He commented on the fact that today medical referrals are processed faster and more efficiently. In the area of administration, Dr Teh commended new ways of packaging and presenting medical cannabis to patients. In its medical form, patients can assume cannabis in pills, sprays, and capsules, all ways that resemble more familiar pharmaceutical drugs. This reduces the social stigma of taking medical cannabis and makes dosage more controllable.

The most efficient way to assume medical cannabis is through the “whole plant medicine.” This is a process through which the cannabinoid compounds are extracted from the plant in the ratio in which they grow naturally – as opposed to being isolated or synthesised. The stigma around THC, the cannabinoid that makes people “high,” coupled with the profit interests of the pharmaceutical industry, encourage the process of isolating cannabinoids compounds to extract CBD only (a non-psychoactive compound of cannabis) or to synthesise it. Dr Teh is not in favour of this approach because when compounds are isolated, the medicine is significantly less effective. Cannabis compounds operate in tandem, and when isolated they often do not work or work in unintended ways. As Dr Teh commented, “with CBD-only products, you often pay more money for less effective results.”

The final aspect that I discussed with Dr Teh is the role of cannabis in permaculture. Dr Teh is an expert and advocate of permaculture and he explained that cannabis naturally fits. Permaculture is a system that integrates ecology, society, and economy to promote a sustainable human life of the Planet. Cannabis is a very versatile plant used for medical and recreational purposes, but also to cook, make fibres and clothes, make bricks for houses, and even to clean soil from toxic waste. Regulations in Australia restrict the plantation of cannabis and therefore foreclose the use of this plant for a more sustainable future.