The Drug Foundation has been working for many years to improve patient access to medicinal cannabis, because we believe it should be available under medical supervision to those who need it.
The evidence is clear that cannabis can be an effective medicine for a range of conditions. As with any medicine, it is more effective for some conditions than others. It should only be used under the guidance of your medical practitioner, especially if you are suffering from a serious health condition.
In 2017, the Government introduced legislation to develop a medicinal cannabis industry in New Zealand and make products more accessible. Regulations to support that Bill came into force on 1 April 2020.
Under the new scheme, cannabis-based medicines can be prescribed by a doctor. It will be easier to produce medicines in New Zealand, and to import them. Over time, this should enable more patients to access products. Information on the scheme for doctors and patients is available on the Ministry of Health website.
However, in the meantime, products remain inaccessible by the vast majority of New Zealanders who need them. The cost is excessive because products are not subsidised. Although cannabis-based medicines can now be prescribed by a doctor, many won’t prescribe due to a lack of training and understanding of prescribing protocols.
Therefore, patients suffering severe and debilitating conditions continue to use illegally sourced products and live in fear of the law. Illegally grown plants continue to be destroyed and medicine confiscated.
Although the new regulations are now in force, it will take some time to license companies to make products here, and to assess imported products to ensure they reach quality standards. It may take months, or longer, before patients notice any change in access.
In fact, patient advocates are concerned the new scheme may not be fully operational for a number of years, which is too long for those who are seriously ill. There’s a good chance that medicinal cannabis will continue to be costly, and there will be no government subsidies to help patients afford products. Advocates say most GPs have no training in how to prescribe cannabis-based medicines, which means some patients will find it difficult to get a prescription.
The priority is to get better patient access to legal products, while ensuring patients and their advocates are not prosecuted if they are caught with cannabis they have sourced illegally.
One just solution would be to provide a statutory defence from prosecution for those who grow plants for their own or another’s medicinal use, with a medical certificate. This could come with a five-year sunset clause to tide patients over until products are legally available.
We think cannabidiol (CBD) products, which are prescription medicines, should be reclassified to match other jurisdictions where they are treated as health foods or dietary supplements. That would mean more products could be brought to market, more quickly.
Other essential measures include removing pricing barriers, for example, by subsidising products, ensuring ACC adopts an official protocol about what it will fund and when; and streamlining support from WINZ so beneficiaries do not have to pay for expensive medications upfront. The Government should also put funding into training and resourcing doctors so they feel more comfortable prescribing.
Here are some key sources for the most up-to-date information on medicinal cannabis
Download our submission on the Misuse of Drugs Medicinal Cannabis Amendment Bill
10 March 2021
Private members bill from Dr Shane Reit highlights how the current medicinal scheme has left patients with huge barriers to access.
31 August 2020
Dr Bronwyn Thompson says patients will benefit from cannabis legalisation, even with studies on using the drug for pain management yet to co...
17 June 2020
Medicinal cannabis advocates see legalisation as the best hope for patients to receive the products they need.
22 May 2020
An expert panel will discuss how the Cannabis Control Bill could improve access for medicinal cannabis users. Register now for 28 May Live C...
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