Why Aussies use cannabis for medicinal purposes

Cannabis-based medicines should be used carefully until more evidence is accumulated, a drug expert has cautioned

Professor Wayne Hall, from the University of Queensland’s Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research, says that these medicines should only be used under medical supervision until more clinical studies have assessed their safety and efficacy.

He said a recent survey on cannabis use to treat anxiety, depression, pain and sleep difficulties highlighted the need for evidence-based research.

“While participants suggested that cannabis was effective in treating their primary problems, they also experienced side effects including drowsiness, lethargy, memory impairment and paranoia,” he said.

Prof Hall has written an editorial in the Medical Journal of Australia, The challenges in providing safe, effective, affordable cannabis-based medicines for unapproved indications, in which he writes that while the survey provides useful information about the use among Australians of illicit cannabis for medical purposes, it does not provide a representative sample of the general population.

“The 1748 participants completed an anonymous online survey to minimise concerns about disclosing illegal activity, and medical cannabis websites and Facebook groups were used for recruitment,” Prof Hall said.

“The sample didn’t include many patients with terminal cancer or older adults with degenerative neurological disorders, and children with epilepsy weren’t included at all.”

Professor Wayne Hall.
Professor Wayne Hall.

Instead, participants were predominantly men (68%), with an average age of 37.9 years, and a 10-year history of using cannabis for medical purposes.

Most had used cannabis for recreational reasons in their teens.

“The survey has given us some insight into who uses cannabis for medical purposes in Australia, why and how they use it, and their views on how cannabis should be provided for medical purposes,” Professor Hall said.

“We need to understand why people want to use cannabis to treat conditions such as anxiety and depression because there isn’t a lot of evidence on its short or long term effectiveness or safety in these conditions.

“Government policies funding clinical trials and allowing some people to access medicinal cannabis are sensible, and in the future should enable doctors to more effectively and safely use cannabis-based medicines to treat illnesses.”

In Queensland, medicinal cannabis can be approved for use for conditions in palliative care, epilepsy, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain.

A number of clinical trials are being conducted in Australia to establish an evidence base for medicinal cannabis use and inform future treatment decisions.

The survey, and commentary by Professor Hall, are published in the MJA.

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  1. JimT

    so many assumptions and misconceptions in this article. Pot smoked “in their teens” ie many many years ago was a lot less potent than pot grown for smoking now. Extra chemicals used these days and hydroponics also alters the chemical make-up of current pot for smoking.Plus the act of smoking adds other chemicals into the body. Plus current pot for recreational use has both THC and CBD. Medicinal cannabis on the other hand is essentially all CBD and route of administration is not via smoking. They are essentially 2 very different “drugs” and shouldn’t be talked about together. If the writer doesn’t distinguish between them then there are a lot of “assumptions and misconceptions” which is bad as they really seems to be a lot of potential good to be had with medicinal cannabis “CBD” formulations. I would personally like to see medicinal cannabis be renamed to something completely different so as to stop this confusion. Those of us more learned can separate the two but the average Jo and Josephine can’t and won’t…..just my thoughts.

    • Jarrod McMaugh

      I think that’s what the professor was aiming for – caution on spruiking the benefits of medicinal cannabis, since people then assume recreational cannabis will also have this effect.

      I completely agree with you that “medicinal cannabis” needs to change to something that de-links it from association with recreational cannabis – in the minds of regulators as well as everyone else.

    • Andrew

      Hi Jim,
      “Street” weed is famously low in CBD and high in THC which probably explains its psychogenic properties (lack of CBD to attenuate psychogenic THC) – see below link for more info;


      The first “medical cannabis” product was a 1:1 THC/CBD formulation from plant material and it seems from the North American market that the trend of co-administration is continuing. Playing around with CBD/THC ratios, adding other cannabinoids and terpenes like CBN and humulene – we seem to be at the very beginning of understanding the clinical applications of all the permutations.

      More and more it seems that “medicinal” and “recreational” have considerable overlap.

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