Last December, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) made a big announcement: it was “down-scheduling” or easing access to certain kinds of medicinal cannabis, moving it from a prescription-only medicine to pharmacist-only, or over-the-counter.
Low-dose cannabidiol – aka CBD – was previously only available through a special scheme, which involved doctors getting select permission for patients to access the product.
“The decision was made following an earlier TGA safety review of low-dose CBD, which indicated that the known adverse effects of CBD at low doses were not serious,” the TGA said at the time of the announcement.
It was made officially available over-the-counter on February 1, but there are no products approved for purchase just yet. Here’s a run-down of all the information you need to know, from when it’ll be available to what it treats, potential side effects, and how it’s different from other forms of cannabis.
What is CBD?
Cannabidiol is one of the chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant (yes, the marijuana plant). It’s extracted from the plant then generally mixed with a carrier oil.
CBD is a non-psychotropic medicine, meaning it won’t make you feel high or stoned, and won’t cause temporary impairment to your senses.
What’s it used for?
To treat issues such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, childhood epilepsy syndromes and chronic pain, which includes arthritis, inflammatory pain, joint pain and migraines.
It can also help with period pain, endometriosis, chemotherapy-induced nausea, depression, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and spasticity.
“We know it works, and it’s very clear that for some people, it’s life-changing in a positive way,” says Doctor Ben Jansen, founder and clinical director of Cannabis Doctors Australia, which specialises in medicinal cannabis and works with doctors and patients to gain access through the TGA. “If we can provide a medicine that’s beneficial to our patients with a low side-effect profile and get them off of medications that are potentially harmful, that’s a win-win.”
How is CBD different from other medicinal cannabis compounds?
The other major cannabinoid that doctors prescribe is tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.
“Commonly people will lump ‘medicinal cannabis’ into one broad topic without being really [specific] about the types,” says Jansen. “It’s really important for patients, doctors and the general public to know that there is a real difference between the two molecules.”
THC binds directly onto the nerves of the body and turns down their signals, bringing about the stoned feeling. Because of this, THC users are not legally allowed to drive, but patients who take CBD-only medicines lawfully can.
The two compounds are also used for different purposes: THC is better for calming pain signals or spasms and treating neurological conditions, whereas CBD works as more of a pain reliever and an anti-inflammatory.
How will CBD be available?
The TGA’s decision allows a maximum daily dose of 150 milligrams, available at pharmacies without a prescription. This includes formulas ingested through the mouth, through the oral mucosa (the membrane lining the mouth) and sublingually (under the tongue).
Topical creams and medicinal vapes with CBD are not included in the approved over-the-counter medicines, and will still require a prescription from a doctor.
“It’s interesting too because there are some concerns in the industry that even 150 milligrams per day might not be enough to be effective,” Cassandra Hunt, managing director of Freshleaf Analytics (which specialises in medicinal cannabis), tells Broadsheet. “Companies might find it hard to register their products with the TGA if that dose isn’t effective, because then the data won’t show it works.”
How do you take CBD?
CBD commonly comes in the form of an oil. Jansen suggests going low and slow with doses, especially for patients who haven’t previously used it with a prescription. Then you gradually increase the amount you take until you reach the minimal effective dose, or the smallest dose that gives the result you need.
It’s also recommended to eat food with a bit of fat when you take your dose, as that will help your body absorb the CBD faster and more effectively. One way of taking the CBD is to place your dose on a teaspoon, hold it under your tongue, and swallow after 90 seconds.
It’s also important to keep track of when and how much you’ve taken, so you have a record of all your doses.
Does CBD have side effects?
“Like everything, there’s a potential for side effects,” Jansen says. “With CBD the side-effect profile is pretty light and not that common. If you do get side effects, generally they’re fleeting and will eventually go away.”
The most common side effects are dry mouth, nausea and loose bowel movement. There’s also a possibility of drowsiness, but it’s a very rare occurrence.
Are products available to purchase?
While you’re now theoretically able to go to your local pharmacy and get CBD without a prescription, the TGA has not yet approved any products for over-the-counter use.
“To get registered with the TGA, you’ve got to have data that shows your product works, it’s efficacious, it’s safe and it’s manufactured in a quality environment,” Hunt says. “Once you’ve collected all that data, the process to get approval can still take 10 to 12 months.”
She adds, “It’s unlikely that we’ll see any products on the shelves later this year; more likely next year.”
How can I get CBD until then?
The best way to access low-dose CBD products right now is through a GP who can give you a prescription.