Medicinal cannabis is a range of medicinal products derived from the cannabis plant, otherwise known as hemp, or marijuana.
Originating in central Asia, the flowering herb contains more than 500 compounds including the plant’s psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), as well as many non-psychoactive compounds including cannabidiol (CBD) which has been shown to have anxiolytic (anxiety relieving), anti-inflammatory and anti-epileptic benefits.
Unlike the recreational drug marijuana, which is usually smoked or sometimes eaten, and varies widely in regards to the amount of active ingredients, medicinal cannabis is a prescription medicine that contains standardised amounts of the active ingredients THC and CBD.
Medicinal cannabis comes in a variety of forms including capsules, tablets, oils, sprays, ointments and patches.
How does medicinal cannabis work?
The active ingredients in medicinal cannabis – THC and CBD – work on the body’s cannabinoid receptors which are found throughout the body including the brain, lung, muscles and digestive tract. These receptors form part of the endocannabinoid system which helps to regulate many functions such as mood, memory, stress response, immunity, pain, appetite and digestion.
What conditions can medicinal cannabis be used for?
According to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, medicinal cannabis has been shown to have therapeutic benefit for at least five clinical conditions – multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, nausea and vomiting, palliative care and chronic non-cancer pain.
Surfers Health Practice Principal Dr Mark Jeffery says that medicinal cannabis may be useful as an adjunct in treating chronic pain conditions such as degenerative arthritis, the neuropathic pain associated with degenerative spinal conditions and diabetes, and Crohn’s disease. Other conditions medicinal cannabis has shown promise for include post-traumatic stress disorders, anxiety, and chronic pain from endometriosis.
“It’s important that we have an open mind,” Dr Jeffery says. “We need to remember that medicinal cannabis is a healing herb that has been around for centuries. Particularly for cancer patients, medicinal cannabis can give people an element of control over treating their physical pain without the side-effects associated with opiates. When you consider that it is almost impossible for patients to overdose on cannabinoids, and yet over a thousand Australians die each year from opioid overdose, then I definitely see a benefit in medicinal cannabis.”
Medicinal cannabis has been shown to be a safe and well-tolerated drug; however, it still carries the risk of potential side-effects. These include fatigue, dizziness, increased appetite, diarrhoea and vomiting. These generally are not seen due to lower therapeutic doses with positive effect.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration has put together guidance documents for medicinal cannabis to improve knowledge, highlight current research and provide patient information:
Photo credit: Davide Ragusa