'Cannabis-like highs' not yet subsidised

Sativex. Photo / Supplied.
Sativex. Photo / Supplied.

The Government has legalised medicinal cannabis, but many multiple sclerosis patients allowed to use the commercial form of the drug will have difficulty paying for it, says Multiple Sclerosis Society national director Rosie Gallagher.

"It's something we've been watching for a while, and it's exciting to hear that its been approved we'd just love to see it subsidised."

British drug manufacturer, GW Pharmaceuticals has been given approval to distribute cannabis extracts in New Zealand as a branded drug, Sativex.

In its application to Medsafe, GW Pharmaceuticals said that in therapeutic doses, Sativex sprayed under the tongue may produce side-effects "interpreted as a euphoria or cannabis-like high".

But Government drug funding agency Pharmac said nobody had applied to have the drug subsidised.

Ms Gallagher said patients would normally expect the manufacturer to approach Pharmac, as the maker had key information on aspects such as the medicine's efficacy in clinical trials.

"We'd expect the drugs company to make the initial contact, but we'd be quite happy to back them up," she said.

"There's so little available in the way of MS medications, and they're so very expensive that we're happy to see anything new that comes on the market that has been shown to improve symptoms."

The main MS drugs - hugely expensive pharmaceuticals such as interferon beta - tended to be aimed at reducing the rate at which patients suffered relapses, but the Sativex cannabis extracts approved for the relief of spasticity were slightly different.

Two cannabis extracts in the drug can help MS patients control continuous or repeated muscle contractions, spasticity which interferes with movements, speech, and walking and may include severe, painful, and uncontrollable muscle spasms.

Even before the medicinal cannabis was legalised, four patients were given special approvals by the Health Minister to use Sativex, two for chronic pain conditions, one for multiple sclerosis and one for muscle spasm, chronic pain and nausea.

Ms Gallagher said there were 4000 people diagnosed with MS in New Zealand - usually diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40 years - and spasticity was one of the most common symptoms.

A cannabis campaigner, NORML spokesman Chris Fowlie, of Auckland, told NZPA that a small spray which could last one week to a month - depending on the dosage rates for an individual patient - cost about $300, and some patients found they could buy illicit cannabis at a lower cost.

"But growing their own or buying it illegally brings significant risks."

- NZPA

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