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Medical uses of cannabis

By Kerri Nazzari - posted Thursday, 11 June 2015

Despite attracting controversy, condemnation, and a political reluctance for legislative reform throughout Australia, cannabis has a rich and vibrant history as an effective treatment for a variety of conditions and diseases, from malaria to rheumatism.

Throughout the 21st century, such potential has been explored by international scientific bodies, with a recent 2011 German controlled study into the 'Therapeutic Potential of Cannabis and Cannabinoids' finding conclusive evidence regarding the usefulness of cannabis and its products as a medicine.

In comparison to a placebo drug, cannabinoids were found to have a significant impact in terms of 'reducing spasticity and the frequency of spasms and significantly improved sleep quality'.


The study also concluded that cannabinoids can be used in the treatment for nausea; effective in the treatment for lack of appetite in anorexic patients and those suffering from HIV/AIDS, reduced chronic pain in HIV patients by 34% compared to 17% using the placebo and has reduced pain associated with multiple sclerosis by three points on a scale of one to ten.

Furthermore, studies have shown that cannabinoids, particularly the compound cannabidiol (CBD) prove to be effective regarding its use as an antiepileptic. Although results have only been shown through animal studies and effectivity may vary depending on the preparation and composition of cannabis, anecdotal evidence and patient surveys suggest cannabidiol enriched cannabis to have a definitive impact when used as a treatment for Dravet syndrome among other neurological disorders; one survey evidencing a 80% reduction in seizures for 53% of those surveyed and in terms of exclusively Davet syndrome patients, 42% of those surveyed found a 80% reduction in seizures.

Issues surrounding the control of cannabinoid levels can be resolved through the production of 'medical-grade herbal cannabis' that has been produced by overseas companies to ensure standardised levels of these cannabinoids. On top of this, medicinal grade cannabis can be standardised by extracting cannabinoids from the plant itself.

Despite this evidence, the use of the drug for medicinal means has been largely prohibited federally within Australia for approximately 50 years. Overall Australia, being a signatory to the 'Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961) and the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988)' is required by international law to enforce a ban on the use, cultivation and trafficking of cannabis with exception to instances involving 'medical or scientific purposes'.

On a Commonwealth level, the 'Customs Act 1901;Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956; Crimes (Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) Act 1990; Narcotics Drugs Act 1967 and the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989' all regulate and ban the use of cannabis.

On top of this, each state has separate laws regarding the possession, trafficking and production of cannabis, also applying to the use of the drug for medicinal means. The New South Wales government has approved a clinical trial that aims at exploring the use of cannabis, nabiximols or synthetic cannabinoids for patients with terminal illness and/or chemotherapy related side-effects including nausea.


A trial regarding the use of cannabis products for the treatment of children suffering from severe epilepsy is expected to begin in 2016. Registered participants for the medicinal cannabis trial must be over eighteen years of age and can nominate three carers as part of their registration within the system. However, obtaining the cannabis to use for the trial is still prohibited under state and commonwealth law.

In New South Wales, it is left to police discretion as to whether charges are laid against participants in the trial if found with the drug. This is only if possession of cannabis leaf is less than 15 grams, possession of cannabis oil is less than 1 gram or possession of cannabis resin is less than 2.5 grams. Recently, the governments of Victoria and Queensland have both announced plans to join the New South Wales government in this venture.

In comparison to other nations, Australia's legislative environment regarding medicinal cannabis evidences ignorance towards scientific findings and anecdotal success. Drug policy in the Netherlands has seen the decriminalisation of the use of Cannabis for over twenty years. Doctors within this Dutch system have the discretion as to whether or not prescribe medicinal cannabis and patients do not have to meet certain conditions, unlike the New South Wales trial. Companies such as Bedrocan BV produce government approved cannabis products such as 'Bedrobinol, Bedrocan, Bediol and Bedica' all with differing controlled levels of THC and CBD for pharmaceutical purchase. Bedrocan BV has also been licenced to supply products to other European countries, particularly 'Germany, Finland, Italy and Norway'. In Canada, although cannabis remains illegal, this legislation allows for its use by patients suffering from a federally recognised chronic condition confirmed by a practising physician. It must be declared that the use of medicinal cannabis only comes as a last resort where traditional forms of medication have failed. Users of medicinal cannabis have the choice of growing the plant itself for supply, the amount of which a doctor recommends, have a cannabis plant grown by a 'designated' individual, or have it supplied from Health Canada or community dispensaries. This Canadian program style has also seen success in the US state of California, which has implemented a similar regime since 1996.

Upon reflection of both the scope of scientific research available and the change to legislation seen in the Netherlands, Canada and California, it is apparent that the Australian government's response to the potential access to medicinal cannabis for those in suffering fails to keep up with progress on both federal and state levels. State governments need to take note of successful programs maintained by governments' overseas, which effectively help reduce the pain and suffering of citizens searching for relief that traditional medicine cannot provide. Medicinal Cannabis has proven to be an effective and safe treatment for those suffering from Dravet's Syndrome, Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, Anorexia, Depression, Anxiety and other chronic disorders and diseases, it should be made safely and readily available through proper channels that removes criminality and stigma.

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About the Author

Kerri Nazzari is a Griffith University penultimate undergraduate student based in Brisbane completing a degree in Laws with a degree in Government and International Relations. Kerri is interested in issues surrounding the principles of social justice and welfare on both a local and international scale.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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