Medicines and poisons
Why are there controls over medicines and poisons?
When medicines and poisons are used properly they can be of great help, for example in:
- treating illness
- controlling agricultural pests
- making effective household cleaning products.
If medicines and poisons are not used properly they can harm people. To ensure medicines and poisons provide the most benefit to the community, there are laws to control their:
- manufacture (including packaging and labelling)
- supply to consumers.
The main laws in Western Australia controlling medicines and poisons are the Poisons Act 1964 (external site) and the Poisons Regulations 1965 (external site).
How do the Act and Regulations control medicines and poisons?
There are 3 main ways the Act and Regulations are used to protect consumers:
- Professional authorisation. For example medical professionals must be authorised to prescribe certain medicines and pharmacists must be authorised to sell over-the-counter medicines in their pharmacy.
- Licences and permits. A licence is required to sell some medicines and poisons. In addition, permits are needed before some poisons (such as dangerous poisons listed in Schedule 7) can be bought and used.
Before issuing such licence and permits, the Pharmaceutical Services Branch (PSB) at the Department of Health checks that the person applying for the licence has the training and knowledge to safely handle and store these medicines and poisons.
- Packaging and labelling requirements. Certain information must appear on the labels of medicines and poisons, such as the product name, ingredients and relevant warnings. There are also requirements on how these items are packaged, for example tamper evident and child resistant packaging.
For poisons in Schedules 5 and 6 (those labelled ‘caution’ or ‘poison’) packaging and labelling are the main methods of ensuring consumers are protected.
What are the poisons schedules?
Medicines and poisons are divided into a series of lists or schedules based on their risk to consumers. The schedule for each individual substance is determined nationally.
The Western Australia Poisons Act 1964 (external site) adopts the Standard for the Uniform Scheduling of Medicines and Poisons (SUSMP) (external site).
More information on scheduling, including the SUSMP, is available from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) (external site).
A number of additional substances, mainly in Schedule 9, appear in Appendix A of the Poisons Act 1964.
How do I know if a particular product contains a scheduled medicine or poison?
Any product that contains a substance listed in the poisons schedules must include its name and strength and/or quantity on the label.
Products which contain scheduled substances must include certain words at the top of the label. These words are also called a signal heading.
The signal headings for the different schedules are as follows:
- Schedule 2 – pharmacy medicine
- Schedule 3 – pharmacist only medicine
- Schedule 4 – prescription only medicine or prescription animal remedy
- Schedule 5 – caution
- Schedule 6 – poison
- Schedule 7 – dangerous poison
- Schedule 8 – controlled drug
- Schedule 9 – prohibited substances.
Schedule 9 substances are only available under strictly defined circumstances, for example for use by analytical laboratories.
Can I take my medication overseas?
Please refer to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) (external site) for general guidance for travellers bringing medicines to and from Australia.
What can I do if I need a new prescription for my medicines but my doctor is unavailable?
If your doctor is unavailable, another doctor at the same practice may be able to provide assistance with prescribing medicines.
If urgent medical attention is required and you are unable to access treatment through your doctor, the emergency department of the nearest public hospital will be able to provide assistance.
Why are some medicines only available from a pharmacy while others require a prescription?
Medicines in Schedules 2 and 3 have been assessed nationally by the TGA. These medicines are most safely supplied to consumers through pharmacies, where the advice of a pharmacist is available.
Before a pharmacist supplies you with a Schedule 3 (pharmacist only) medicine they must determine whether that medicine is right for you.
The pharmacist will take various factors into account including:
- other medical conditions you may have
- other medicines you are taking.
A pharmacist can refuse to supply a Schedule 3 medicine if they do not believe it is suitable for you.
Medicines in Schedules 4 and 8 have been determined to require a higher level of oversight for their safe use.
These medicines are most commonly prescribed by a doctor, but some may also be prescribed by other health practitioners such as:
- nurse practitioners
Medicines in Schedule 8 are known as controlled drugs. They include strong pain relievers such as morphine and oxycodone.
These medicines have a greater risk of causing drug dependence and as a result there are extra controls around their:
Why does the pharmacist ask to see my driver’s licence when I want to buy products that contain pseudoephedrine?
Pseudoephedrine is a medicine that helps to relieve nasal congestion. It is available over-the-counter from pharmacies.
Pseudoephedrine is also used to make the illicit drug methamphetamine. As a result, pharmacy sales of products containing this ingredient must be recorded in a special database.
The pharmacist must also know the person to whom they are selling the product or ask the person to provide photographic identification.
The current database used by pharmacies in Western Australia is called Project Stop® (external site). This product is a tool for pharmacists which helps them decide whether a person should or should not be sold a product containing pseudoephedrine. It works most effectively if a driver’s licence is used for identification purposes.
If you do not have a driver’s licence, a proof of age card issued by the Department of Transport is a suitable alternative. Your pharmacist may also choose to accept other forms of photographic identification.
Are there any substances which are banned in Western Australia?
There are 2 groups of substances which are generally not legally available to consumers in Western Australia.
- Schedule 9
- substances prohibited under Section 22 of the Poisons Act 1964.
Schedule 9 (prohibited substances) includes many illicit drugs such as:
- synthetic cannabinoids
- MDMA (ecstasy).
These substances are subject to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1981 (external site), which is administered by the WA Police. There are significant penalties for possession with intent to supply and trafficking of these substances under this Act.
Substances prohibited under Section 22 of the Poisons Act 1964 do not result in drug abuse. However, they are considered to be such a danger to human health that their sale, supply and use are banned.
The substances on the current notice are also included in Appendix C of the Standard for the Uniform Scheduling of Medicines and Poisons (SUSMP) (external site).
Many of the substances prohibited under the Section 22 notice have a history of use in Chinese traditional medicines. For example, various plants which contain aristolochic acids are banned for use as medicines due to the risk of these acids causing kidney failure.
Other products banned under section 22
- Kava – this is a drug made from the root of a shrub originating in the Western Pacific. In small doses it can relax muscles and help with sleep. When kava is combined with other drugs and alcohol it can be dangerous. All kava products – including commercially manufactured tea bags and tablets – are banned in WA.
- Amygdalin (laetrile) – is found in some fruit pips, including raw nuts. It has been promoted as an alternative cancer treatment. Amygdalin is banned, unless a terminally ill person wishes to access this substance and has the support of their doctor. Both the patient and their prescriber must have authority to import and use amygdalin under the Commonwealth’s Special Access Scheme.
Medicines and Poisons Regulation Branch
This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.