The Who, What, How & Why of Medical Cannabis in South Australia

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Oct 27, 2023
Last updated:
Jan 23, 2024

With its picturesque vineyards, beaches and vibrant restaurant scene, there are plenty of reasons to visit or live in South Australia.

Since its legalisation in 2016, prescription medical cannabis has been available nationwide. The Therapeutic Goods Administration’s (TGA) data shows that only a small portion of medical cannabis prescriptions have come from South Australia, but as with the rest of the country that number is growing fast.

Since there aren’t as many medical cannabis patients in South Australia compared to other states, South Australian residents may not have all the information around how medical cannabis is prescribed and who is eligible. It’s also important to understand how medical cannabis works, including the effects of different cannabinoids and the varying ways patients can consume medical cannabis.  

If you live in Adelaide or anywhere in South Australia, read on to get informed about medical cannabis and how it might benefit you.

Who is Eligible For Medical Cannabis Treatment in South Australia?

In South Australia, doctors can prescribe medical cannabis for over 130 medical conditions including anxiety, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, PTSD, ADHD and autism. But before a doctor will prescribe medical cannabis for any condition, you’ll need to have tried conventional treatments first.

You don’t have to try every possible treatment, but you do need to have tried some but found them to be ineffective or that you experienced unmanageable side effects. This is because the TGA still classifies medical cannabis as an ‘alternative’ treatment.

How Do Medical Cannabis Prescriptions Work?

Medical cannabis isn’t prescribed the same way as more conventional medications. The TGA regulates all prescription medications and determines whether one is approved or unapproved based on their assessment of that medication’s safety and effectiveness.

Medications with a large amount of research and clinical use behind them usually gain approval from the TGA. These medications are proven safe and effective, such as antibiotics for treating bacterial infections. Once the TGA approves a medication, they will register it for a specific purpose.

The TGA has so far only approved two medical cannabis products in South Australia:

  • Epidyolex: a cannabidiol (CBD) oil for helping manage seizures associated with the rare childhood epilepsy conditions Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.
  • Sativex: a combined tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD mouth spray for easing muscle spasticity in people with multiple sclerosis.

What’s The Difference Between Approved And Unapproved Medications?

If a medication is unapproved, it doesn’t mean that it has no use or that it can’t be prescribed. It does mean that the medication, although it may have promising studies behind it, doesn’t have enough scientific evidence to receive approval from the TGA.

The anti-cannabis movement of the early 20th century halted high-grade research into THC, CBD and other cannabis compounds. Thankfully, as knowledge around the medical use of cannabis begins to spread, we’re seeing a revival of the research into the plant’s medical potential.

In the meantime, most medical cannabis products remain unapproved. Doctors can still prescribe unapproved medications, however, under two schemes devised by the TGA:

  • Special Access Scheme (SAS): doctors can prescribe an unapproved medication via the Special Access Scheme if they think it might help the patient’s condition.
  • Authorised Prescriber Scheme (APS): doctors can apply to the TGA to become authorised prescribers of certain unapproved medications.

The vast majority of medical cannabis prescriptions happen through Authorised Prescribers, although even if a doctor isn't an AP, they can still make an application through the SAS. If you’re interested in the data on who and what medical cannabis is prescribed for, the TGA has the information on their website.

How Long Does A Medical Cannabis Approval Take in South Australia?

If you’re in South Australia, you can book an appointment with your regular healthcare provider or a medical cannabis clinic to discuss your eligibility. Your doctor can apply through the SAS or APS if they believe your condition might benefit from a medical cannabis prescription.

If your doctor prescribes through the SAS, your healthcare provider will submit an application for you that contains information about your condition, the proposed medical cannabis product and the dosing regimen. If the TGA approves your application, you can order your medical cannabis through an approved supplier.

If you go through a medical cannabis clinic, the process might not take as long. Most doctors at medical cannabis clinics have been given Authorised Prescriber status, so can prescribe medical cannabis like any other approved medication. Otherwise, how quickly you receive your medication will depend on your healthcare provider’s familiarity with the SAS medical cannabis prescription pathway, but you can generally expect to wait one or two days.

What Forms of Medical Cannabis Are There in South Australia?

The most common forms of prescribed medical cannabis are dried flower and concentrated oils, but other options include capsules, creams and balms. Edible cannabis isn’t a prescription option in Australia despite its popularity overseas. You and your doctor will discuss the best form for you and your condition.

If you’re prescribed dried cannabis flower you can consume it with a medical cannabis vaporiser. First you’ll grind up your cannabis flower, then add it to the vaporiser’s filling chamber. Dry herb vapes such as the Mighty Medic allow you to set specific temperatures to target different cannabis compounds. Doctors and the TGA don’t recommend smoking and will always direct their patients to vape medical cannabis instead, since it’s a safer and more efficient option.

Cannabis flowers tend to be around 19% to 32% THC, with limited amounts of CBD. Cannabis plants come in many different cultivars (strains), so the cannabinoid and terpene content will vary. Your doctor will prescribe you a cultivar with a THC/CBD ratio appropriate for you.

You can consume cannabis oil in several ways, including drops under the tongue (sublingual), capsules, ointments and vape cartridges, which you use with a vape pen. Cannabis oils contain specific amounts of THC, CBD, terpenes and minor cannabinoids, and are designed to deliver a tailored medication. Some oils are isolates, meaning they contain only CBD or only THC. An isolate CBD oil is a great option if you are worried about not being able to drive while using THC, as CBD does not cause intoxication on its own.

There is also broad-spectrum cannabis oil, which contains no THC but does contain CBD, terpenes and other minor cannabinoids such as cannabinol (CBN). Finally, there’s full-spectrum cannabis oil, which has all the compounds present in a cannabis plant, including trace amounts of THCWhat’s The Difference Between CBD And THC?

An important discussion you’ll have with your doctor will be about which cannabis compounds might help your condition. CBD and THC are prescribed for different reasons – THC is primarily what causes the psychotropic effects of cannabis, commonly referred to as a ‘high.’ These psychotropic effects have several medical uses, such as stimulating the appetite of someone going through cancer treatment.

CBD doesn’t cause intoxication like THC, but it may have several therapeutic uses of its own. CBD may also reduce some of THC’s potential side effects such as anxiety, which is why some patients prefer taking THC alongside CBD.

Is CBD Oil Legal in South Australia?

Under the TGA’s guidelines, cannabis products are placed in five categories: pure CBD (>98% CBD), CBD dominant, balanced (near equal amounts of CBD and THC), THC dominant and pure THC (>98% THC).

Category 1 medical cannabis (isolate CBD oil) is technically legal to buy over the counter in pharmacies, but it’s complicated. Before they can put their products in pharmacies, companies need to go through the long and expensive registration process required by the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). No CBD products have gone through this process, meaning they aren’t yet available to buy over the counter.

To get a product registered requires clinical trials and formal approvals that can take up to 2 years. It only became legal to sell CBD products over the counter in 2021, meaning we probably won’t see any CBD products registered and available to purchase until late 2023. In the meantime, you can still access CBD products with a doctor’s prescription.

How Much Does Medical Cannabis Cost in South Australia?

Unfortunately, medical cannabis generally isn’t covered by the Pharmaceutical benefits Scheme, meaning you’ll likely have to pay full price for your medication. The average cost of medical cannabis is around $250 to $300 per month, not including the cost of your appointment with the prescribing doctor which tends to be between $80 and $150.

However, many private health providers will cover medical cannabis under their General Treatment or Extras plan. If your private health insurance does cover medical cannabis, it will need to have been prescribed through the Special Access Scheme or the Authorised Prescriber Scheme.

Private health insurers offer different coverage for medical cannabis, but typically they’ll cover up to a certain maximum each year and will likely have a limit on the cost per script as well. This means that you might not be covered for a full 12 months if you have an ongoing medical cannabis prescription.

What's The Difference Between A Medical Cannabis Clinic And A GP?

It can be difficult for some people to have open conversations about medical cannabis with their regular healthcare provider. It’s also estimated that only 5% of Australian doctors will prescribe medical cannabis, meaning many people may feel that it’s too difficult to access the care they need.

Doctors from dedicated cannabis clinics will understand the benefits and risks of medical cannabis. Cannabis clinics offer confidential telehealth consultations to people in South Australia and the rest of the country. During the consultation, a doctor will ask about you and your treatment history, assessing whether you may benefit from medical cannabis.

If you’re eligible for a prescription, you can purchase your medication and have it delivered to your front door in a discreet package. You can rest assured that whatever medical cannabis product you receive from a doctor’s prescription will be high quality and safe, as all cannabis products must pass extensive checks with the TGA. If you have any issues with your prescription you can arrange a follow-up appointment with your doctor to discuss what is and isn’t working.

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