Australia unprepared for over-the-counter medical cannabis sales

16 September 2020
We are lagging behind in consumer access to CBD products
Professor Iain McGregor from the Lambert Initiative says it is time for Australia to have a mature approach to consumer access to safe and effective cannabinoid products without a prescription.
Professor Iain McGregor.

Professor Iain McGregor.

New analysis by the Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics at the University of Sydney shows that access to products containing cannabidiol in Australia is far more difficult than in many other countries.

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a non-intoxicating component of the hemp plant. Evidence suggests it has beneficial effects in treating conditions such as epilepsy, anxiety, pain and insomnia while carrying few, if any, risks of major side effects or addiction. CBD is now approved as a medicine to treat certain rare types of epilepsy in children.

The new analysis, published this week in the International Journal of Drug Policy, shows that CBD-containing products are readily available online and in health food stores and pharmacies across the USA, Canada, Britain and most European countries. It is estimated that approximately 1 in 7 Americans have used CBD-containing products.

These products include CBD-containing oils, capsules, beverages, lozenges and confectionery. In Switzerland, CBD-containing cannabis is also legally available as a tobacco substitute.

In Australia and New Zealand, however, CBD products are highly regulated and can only be accessed by a doctor applying on behalf of a patient through a complex and expensive “special access” process.

Last week, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) announced it may allow over-the-counter access to CBD products in Australian pharmacies from 2021.

However, analysis by the Lambert Initiative shows that the maximum doses permitted under the TGA proposal (60 milligrams a day) may not be high enough to benefit patients. These are usually seen at higher CBD doses of between 300 and 1500 milligrams a day.

The new paper shows that even within European countries and the USA, where CBD is widely available, the legal basis of CBD access is often unclear, with uncertainty as to whether CBD should be treated as a food or a drug and whether the intoxicating component of cannabis (THC) can also be present in products.

Lead author of the paper Professor Iain McGregor said: “CBD use without a prescription is an unprecedented global phenomenon. We are entering a period that is a huge exercise in self-medication.”

He said: “At present the signs are promising for CBD having efficacy treating a multitude of conditions. Simplifying access to reasonable doses of CBD for consumers seems like a wise option for regulators, given the inherent safety of the drug.”


The Lambert Initiative, a philanthropically funded, not-for profit, research centre at the University of Sydney commissioned the initial research undertaken in this study and also provided salary support to the researchers during the conduct of the study.

Professor Iain McGregor has acted as a consultant to Kinoxis Therapeutics, is on the Medical Advisory Board of BOD Australia and has received honoraria from Janssen. His research is funded by the Lambert Initiative and the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). He, together with Associate Professor Jonathon Arnold, are inventors on several patents relating to novel cannabinoid therapeutics.

Marcus Strom

Science Media Adviser

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