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  • Writer's pictureSami Abbas

Access to Medicinal Marijuana in Western Australia


A scientist experimenting with medicinal Marijuana oil.

In February 2016, the Australian Government made significant amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 (Cth), paving the way for the legal cultivation, production and manufacture of cannabis for medicinal or scientific purposes.[1] However, this legislative shift does not equate to a free pass for recreational use. Cannabis remains a highly regulated substance in Australia, subject to strict controls and prohibitions under both Commonwealth and State laws.

 

Despite the legal changes, many people still have questions about who can access medicinal cannabis, how it can be prescribed, and what conditions qualify for treatment. In Western Australia, just like the rest of the country, understanding the legal landscape surrounding medicinal marijuana requires a clear grasp of the relevant laws and regulations.

 

In this article, we will delve into the legal implications of medicinal marijuana laws in Western Australia, exploring who can prescribe and supply medicinal cannabis, the conditions that warrant a prescription, and the stringent regulations governing its cultivation and distribution. Whether you are a patient seeking relief or simply curious about the legal framework, this guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the facts without bias or judgment.

 

Scheduling of Medicinal Marijuana


In Western Australia, it's essential to understand the regulatory classifications guiding the distribution of medicinal cannabis. In Australia, medicines are meticulously categorised into schedules based on their safety risk and accessibility to the public. This system, known as "scheduling," ensures that medications are appropriately regulated to safeguard public health. Medicines with lower safety risks are typically less tightly controlled and may be available without a prescription at supermarkets or pharmacies. Conversely, medications deemed to pose higher safety risks are accessible only with a prescription from a qualified medical practitioner.[2] 

 

Schedule

Category

Description

Schedule 1

Not in current use

Not currently utilised

Schedule 2

Pharmacy Medicine

These medications are readily available on the shelves of pharmacies.

Schedule 3

Pharmacist Only Medicine

Medications accessible from pharmacists without a prescription, typically located behind the pharmacy counter.

Schedule 4

Prescription Only Medicine

Medications necessitating a prescription from an authorised healthcare professional (e.g., a doctor). They may be obtained in hospitals or purchased from a pharmacy with a prescription.

Schedule 5

Caution

Chemicals posing minimal harm risk, requiring appropriate packaging with basic warnings and safety instructions on the label.

Schedule 6

Poison

Chemicals presenting a moderate risk of harm, mandating specialised packaging with strong warnings and safety directions on the label.

Schedule 7

Dangerous Poison

Chemicals with an elevated risk of harm even in small doses. They are accessible only to individuals capable of handling them safely, often with specific regulations for their sale, use, or storage.

Schedule 8

Controlled Drug

Medications or chemicals subject to strict regulations governing their production, supply, distribution, ownership, and usage. Only authorised healthcare professionals can prescribe them, often requiring a special prescribing permit.

Schedule 9

Prohibited Substance

Chemicals prone to abuse or misuse, illegal for production, ownership, sale, or use, except when necessary for medical or scientific research purposes.

Schedule 10

Banned Chemicals

Chemicals deemed exceedingly hazardous, completely prohibited.

 

Most medicinal cannabis products fall under Schedule 8 (S8) medicines, categorised as controlled drugs, indicating their strict regulation as such, these products are subject to stringent regulations and must be handled in accordance with the same protocols governing other S8 medicines. This includes adherence to strict guidelines for prescribing, dispensing, packaging, labelling, storage, transport, recording, reporting, disposal, and advertising. However, products containing solely cannabidiol are classified as Schedule 4 (S4) medicines, accessible only through prescriptions. Notably, all medical practitioners across Western Australia hold the authority to prescribe medicinal cannabis products. Yet, for S8 products, obtaining approval from the Department of Health is mandatory, and this approval must be sought for each patient individually.

Moreover, it is crucial to note that the majority of medicinal cannabis products available are not registered therapeutic goods. Consequently, the supply of these unregistered therapeutic goods necessitates approval or notification from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). These regulatory measures underscore the careful oversight and stringent processes governing the access and distribution of medicinal cannabis within the state.


What can you get Medicinal Marijuana For?


According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2022–2023, medical cannabis is predominantly prescribed for chronic pain, with a significant portion also being utilised to address anxiety, cancer-related pain, and nausea.[3] This trend is reflected in the survey findings:

  • Forty-three percent of respondents reported being diagnosed or treated for chronic pain, a substantially higher proportion compared to the national average of 10.7%.

  • Forty-nine percent of users had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, significantly exceeding the national prevalence of 12.9%.

  • A smaller but noteworthy 6.2% of users reported some form of cancer, compared to 3.7% nationally. However, this estimate should be interpreted cautiously due to the relative standard error.

  • Users of prescribed medical cannabis were also more likely to experience other health conditions:

  • Depression was reported by 47% of users, compared to 13.3% nationally.

  • Other major illnesses were experienced by 22% of users, notably higher than the national average of 6.1%.

Medical users of cannabis, particularly marijuana, have long turned to the drug for relief from a spectrum of life-threatening and debilitating medical conditions. [4] The advanced stages of many illnesses, along with the treatments they entail, often bring about intractable symptoms such as severe nausea, vomiting, or pain. In response to these challenges, thousands of patients grappling with conditions like cancer, AIDS, and other diseases have reported significant relief from these distressing symptoms through the therapeutic use of marijuana, typically administered through smoking.

These findings underscore the diverse range of medical conditions for which medical cannabis is prescribed, highlighting its potential as a treatment option for individuals facing chronic pain, anxiety, cancer-related symptoms, depression, and other major illnesses.

 

Prescribing Medicinal Marijuana


In Australia, medicinal cannabis products predominantly come in the form of oral liquids (such as oils) or capsules. These products are broadly categorised based on their cannabinoid composition into three main types: those containing only cannabidiol (CBD), products with an equal mix of CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in a 50:50 ratio, and products primarily composed of THC. The cannabinoid content in these products is typically indicated on the label as a ratio of THC to CBD concentration, measured in milligrams per millilitre (mg/mL). For instance, a product labelled as 20:5 would contain 20 mg/mL of THC and 5 mg/mL of CBD. This standardised labelling system provides clarity regarding the composition of medicinal cannabis products, allowing patients and healthcare professionals to make informed decisions about their usage. For medicinal purposes, cannabis consumption is typically recommended through vaporisation rather than smoking. This method reduces potential risks associated with combustion while still allowing for the effective delivery of cannabinoids. Medicinal cannabis products commonly include extracts in oils and solvent extracts, such as tinctures, as well as or-mucosal sprays. Additionally, transdermal application methods, such as patches or topical application of gel or cream, have been developed to provide targeted relief for specific conditions.

 

In Western Australia, any licensed doctor holds the authority to prescribe medicinal cannabis if they deem it appropriate for a patient, provided they have obtained the necessary government approvals. This means that prescriptions for medicinal cannabis can be filled at any pharmacy within the state. However, there are two exceptions to this rule that require special approval: patients under the age of sixteen and those with a history of substance abuse. It is crucial for patients to engage in open dialogue with their treating general practitioner (GP) to discuss whether medicinal cannabis might be a suitable treatment option.  A medical professional may gather information about the patient's medical background and any relevant family medical history to assess the appropriateness of medicinal cannabis treatment.[5]

 

Before receiving a prescription, patients must provide informed consent, acknowledging the potential effects of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and the legal implications, particularly regarding operating heavy machinery, if the medical cannabis contains primarily THC rather than CBD (Cannabidiol).

 

If a GP determines that medicinal cannabis could be beneficial for a patient's treatment plan, they can initiate the approval process by contacting the Commonwealth Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). This involves seeking authorisation for the supply of the specific product. Additionally, the GP is responsible for coordinating with a local pharmacy to dispense the prescribed medication to the patient, ensuring accessibility within their community. Health practitioners also have the option to import cannabis-based products from overseas for the treatment of individual patients. However, it is important to note that the Office of Drug Control must approve importation. This collaborative effort between healthcare professionals aims to facilitate safe and effective access to medicinal cannabis for eligible patients in Western Australia.

 

Legal Issues and Considerations


When considering medicinal cannabis use, there are several key factors to keep in mind, particularly concerning its potential impact on activities like driving. Research has demonstrated that cannabis consumption may impair a person's ability to drive safely. Unlike alcohol, there is not a specific threshold of cannabis concentration that indicates impairment. Therefore, it is illegal for individuals undergoing treatment with medicinal cannabis containing THC to drive. This concern has prompted calls for reforms in driving laws regarding medicinal cannabis in Western Australia.[6] In Western Australia, it is considered an offense to drive with THC present in one's system, irrespective of whether the THC originates from prescribed medicinal cannabis. Even if a person's blood alcohol content is below the legal limit of 0.05, the presence of THC due to medicinal cannabis use can lead to prosecution under polydrug offense laws. Patients using medicinal marijuana have voiced concerns regarding the perceived unreasonable barrier posed by current drug driving laws, prompting petitions for government action. Some reports state that the presence of THC in bodily fluids does not necessarily correlate with a person's current level of impairment.[7] This assertion underscores the need for a nuanced approach to evaluating impairment in cannabis users.


Patients often turn to medicinal cannabis as a last resort for treating serious health conditions. Consequently, they rely heavily on car travel for accessing healthcare and other essential services. The lack of access to transportation due to restrictive drug driving laws presents significant challenges and disadvantages for these individuals.


The petition highlights the urgent need for reform in drug driving legislation to address the unique circumstances of medicinal cannabis patients. By recognising the complexities of impairment assessment and ensuring fair treatment for patients, policymakers can support the livelihoods and well-being of individuals relying on medicinal marijuana for medical purposes.

 

Conclusion


To summarise, the medicinal cannabis landscape in Western Australia is a complex interplay of legal, medical, and societal factors. Since the 2016 amendment to the Narcotic Drugs Act, the availability of medicinal cannabis has provided hope for many patients dealing with chronic pain, anxiety, cancer-related symptoms, and other debilitating conditions. However, understanding the legal framework surrounding its prescription, supply, and usage requires careful consideration of various regulations and guidelines.


Medical practitioners play a crucial role in assessing the suitability of medicinal cannabis for individual patients, taking into account their medical history, current medications, and potential risks. Despite its therapeutic potential, concerns regarding impaired driving and the need for reforms in drug driving laws persist, particularly among patients who rely on medicinal cannabis for their livelihoods and well-being.

If you require assistance with the legal aspects of medicinal cannabis in Western Australia, Carter Dickens Lawyers stands ready to offer support. With our wealth of experience in this field, we understand the complexities and nuances of the legal framework surrounding medicinal cannabis.

 

Disclaimer: The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. If you need legal assistance, we recommend contacting Carter Dickens Lawyers or consulting a qualified attorney. Legal matters can vary based on laws and regulations, and it is important to seek professional advice for your specific situation.

 

 

 


[1] Narcotic Drugs Amendment Act 2016 (Cth).

[2] For more information on scheduling, see, HealthDirect, ‘Scheduling of Medicines and Poisons’ (Web Page) <https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/scheduling-of-medicines-and-poisons>.

[3] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, ‘Medical marijuana/cannabis in the NDSHS’ (Web Page) < https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/medicines/medical-marijuana-cannabis>.

[4] Kassirer J, “Federal Foolishness and Marijuana” (1997) 336(5) NEJM 366 at 366.

[5] For more information, see, TGA ‘Guidance for the use of medicinal cannabis in Australia: Patient information’ (Web Page) < https://www.tga.gov.au/resources/resource/guidance/guidance-use-medicinal-cannabis-australia-patient-information>.

[6] Sam Bold, Georgia Loney and Jacqueline Lynch, ‘WA parliamentary committee pushes for medicinal cannabis, drug driving reforms’ ABC News (Online, 30 March 2023) < https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-03-30/wa-parliamentary-committee-tables-medicinal-cannabis-report/102164826>.

[7] See for studies on driving, Arkell, T.R., McCartney, D. and McGregor, I.S. (2021) ‘Medical cannabis and driving’, Australian Journal of General Practice, 50(6), pp. 357–362. doi:10.31128/ajgp-02-21-5840.

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