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It is currently illegal to use unprocessed cannabis for pain relief or other medical use in New Zealand, although new regulations are being developed that may allow this in the future.
Products containing cannabis are classified as ‘controlled drugs’ in New Zealand, and Ministerial approval is required before most products can be prescribed by a doctor. The exceptions are Sativex (for patients who have multiple sclerosis), and products containing a cannabis extract called cannabidiol, with no psychoactive properties.
Patients often find it both difficult and expensive to obtain and get approval for medicines containing cannabis in New Zealand. For example, Sativex often costs patients more than $1000 per month to buy.
Cannabis is not the cure-all elixir that it's sometimes made out to be, but it is clear that is has a range of valuable benefits.
Strong evidence shows that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective for the treatment of chronic pain, to combat nausea for chemotherapy patients, and for easing the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. There is also moderate or limited evidence of its effectiveness in treatment for many other conditions. In addition, there are a growing number of powerful personal stories about cannabis helping patients with symptoms that could not be relieved with other medicines.
A key issue in deciding whether any medicine should be available is whether its benefits outweigh its adverse effects. While the majority of people use cannabis without serious health harms, a proportion experiences negative side-effects, and some may become dependent.
However, scientists and medical researchers consistently note that no medicinal drug is without risk. Compared to many prescription medicines, the side-effects of cannabis are mild for most people, with limited impact on everyday activity and social functioning.
All medicines prescribed by your doctor go through a rigorous research and approval process. Products containing cannabis that are prescribed for patients should be no different.
Doctors need to know how much to prescribe, at what strength, what the likely effects will be and what interactions the medicine may have with any other drugs a person is taking.
However, it could take years for a full range of affordable pharmaceutical-grade cannabis products to be developed. While the “gold standard” approach is ideal, it is not realistic for right now.
While we are waiting for 'gold standard' pharmaceutical products that are affordable and accessible to all, we need a compassionate scheme which gives people legal protection if they grow, buy or consume cannabis for medical purposes.
Some patients with terminal or chronic, painful illnesses already use products containing cannabis to help with their symptoms. They currently live in fear of arrest. There is no good justification for prosecuting patients who cannot access legal products that give them substantial relief.
There is strong public support for medicinal cannabis from across the political spectrum. A 2017 Curia poll showed:
That is a strong mandate for change.
The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill 2018 sets out a legal defence for terminally ill people to use (but not cultivate) cannabis and cannabis utensils. It also lays the groundwork for the Government to develop domestic production of medicinal cannabis products.
The Bill is currently with the Health Select Committee who will examine it in detail, collect evidence and receive submissions before it goes back to Parliament.
To help patients, carers and health professionals make a submission on the Bill, the Drug Foundation is running workshops in February/ March 2018 in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland, as well as an online session. Workshop details and registration
Read more about the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill and make a submission. Submissions close on 21 March 2018.