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Regulations governing New Zealand’s medical cannabis programme, released today by Health Minister David Clark, are an improvement on the earlier draft rules, but the success of the scheme will be measured by whether patients get better access to essential medicines, says the New Zealand Drug Foundation.

The regulations allow a New Zealand-based industry that can cultivate cannabis and develop a range of medicinal products for patients with a doctor’s prescription. Quality standards and prescriber guidelines are covered by the regulations, which also allows the importation of medicines produced overseas.

Earlier draft guidelines had been widely criticised by patient, medical and industry organisations for limiting prescribing to specialists only, which would have created barriers for many patients. These restrictions have been removed, allowing GPs to prescribe approved products.

“Patients need to be at the centre of the medicinal cannabis scheme and any barriers in their way need to be removed,” said Ross Bell, NZ Drug Foundation Executive Director.

“Limiting prescribing to a small group of specialists would have left many patients without access, so we are very pleased to see this restriction lifted. But a major barrier is still in place, being the cost of medicines, which face major hurdles in obtaining Pharmac or other price subsidies,” said Mr Bell.

“We are also disappointed that the regulations don’t extend the exemption from prosecution, available to patients in palliative care who access unapproved cannabis medicines, to a wider range of patients and their carers, and so-called ‘Green Fairies’. We know that when patients are not able to obtain medicines from the formal scheme, particularly because of cost, they will buy from the informal, illicit market, and face the risk of criminalisation.

“We will continue to advocate for these patients and those who provide their medicine.

“Ultimately the medical cannabis scheme will be judged on whether all patients who would benefit from these medicines are able to access these from their doctor at a reasonable cost. If the regulations prove too strict and the cost too high, we would expect the government to make rapid adjustments to the rules.”

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