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Medicinal cannabis: what is it and is it different to marijuana?

Wednesday 1 March 2017

A jar containing medicinal cannabis capsules.
While the terms medicinal cannabis and marijuana technically mean the same thing, there are reasons why we talk about medicinal cannabis in Queensland.

The topic of medicinal cannabis use has been getting a lot of attention over the last twelve months. It started with changes to the federal laws which previously prevented the importation of cannabis-based pharmaceuticals at the tail end of 2015, a change that opened up the option of conducting medical trials in Australia.

The response to that change has been swift at the state level, with both Queensland and NSW launching their first medicinal cannabis trials before the end of 2016. Changes to Queensland legislation make it one of the first states to enable access to medicinal cannabis containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for therapeutic uses, under certain conditions.

Australia is not alone in making these changes. Until recently, the use of cannabis or marijuana-derived medications has been prohibited or restricted in many countries of the world, but there is a definite cultural shift to allowing more trials and research to be undertaken which  is gaining momentum.

With that shift has come a change in language, particularly in Australia. Governments and medical authorities keep using the phrase medicinal cannabis; individuals and journalists will occasionally use the term medical marijuana. This can cause confusion for those new to the discussion about cannabis-based pharmaceutical products, particularly when looking for reliable information.

So, what’s the difference between medicinal cannabis and marijuana? Let’s take a closer look.

A marijuana plant by any other name

Essentially, the terms medicinal marijuana and medicinal cannabis can be used interchangeably. Both refer to the use of pharmaceutical products (or medicines) using the cannabis plant (often just called marijuana) or chemicals contained within it to treat medical conditions.

In Australia, the term medicinal cannabis tends to be favoured to help draw the distinction between the medicinal aspects of the plant and the use of marijuana as an illegal recreational drug.

The medicinal cannabis name is derived from the scientific name of the plant’s genus, cannabis, and also refers to the chemicals within the plant, which are known as cannabinoids.

Despite this, medicinal marijuana is a term that has staked a significant claim in the public consciousness. It is the popular term used in the United States, where cannabis-derived treatments have been around long enough to start filtering into popular culture. It also draws the connection to the more familiar name for the cannabis plant, when it is smoked or eaten for the purposes of getting high.

What medicinal cannabis is and is not

There are significant differences between pharmaceutical products derived from cannabis and the consumption of marijuana for the purposes of getting high.  There are over 100 cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, including THC, the cannabinoid associated with the psychoactive effect associated with smoking or ingesting marijuana recreationally.

The use of crude cannabis remains illegal in Queensland and other parts of Australia, while the pharmaceutical products derived from the cannabis plant frequently involve isolating useful cannabinoids and refining their production to minimise harm.  These pharmaceutical products may contain various levels of the cannabinoids dependent on which medical condition they are being used for.

The search for medical uses of cannabinoids can be compared to the way that the opium poppy plant was researched and trialled to develop pharmaceutical products, such as morphine.

What’s in a name, really?

Medicinal cannabis. Medicinal marijuana. It may seem like a silly distinction to draw, given the two terms mean the same things, but words have connotations beyond their strict definitions.

Cannabis has always been the scientific name of the plant, while marijuana originated in Mexican-Spanish and became commonly associated with the cannabis plant in the early twentieth century. Although the term has been co-opted many times since then, it is still a word that remains closely associated with the illegal use of recreational cannabis and retains poor connotations among some members of the community.

Given the already complex legal and social landscape that medical practitioners, researchers, and legislators are negotiating, the use of cannabis as the preferred term keeps the debate focused on the potential medicinal benefits.

It may be irritating to remember, when you hit Google looking for information and advice, but the public perception about medicinal cannabis remains a key part of any debate and legislation. Given the big differences between cannabis-based pharmaceuticals and what is consumed for recreational purposes, making a distinction between the two with the language used is a small, but important, thing.

More information about medicinal cannabis in Queensland can be found on the Queensland Health website.

Last updated: 23 August 2017