Medicinal cannabis costs set to tumble after cheaper product gets green light

By Phil Vine

The cost of medicinal cannabis is set to tumble after Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne approved a Canadian pain relief product.

It is estimated the marijuana-based tincture called Tilray will cost at least 50 per cent less than the existing legal product Sativex, a UK mouth spray made by GW Pharma.

Multiple sclerosis sufferer, Dr Huhana Hickey, who applied to use Tilray, said: "I'm so relieved. It's going to save me $700 a month."

The AUT academic says she has spent $9000 on prescriptions since she started taking medicinal cannabis in February. Hickey says the results have been remarkable.

"I'm living my life again. I'm back to work, I am fully-functioning"

She started using the spray to replace pain killers such as morphine, codeine, tramadol and other opiates which she had been prescribed for years.

"At the start I was sceptical I didn't think it was going to work that well, but I can't believe it. I haven't had opiates for seven months. It really works and I have no side effects."

Hickey says she doesn't get high, just a little dozy at nights.
"And I sleep, which is great because I've been an insomniac for 40 years."

Medicinal cannabis is being used to treat diverse conditions such as chronic pain, terminal cancer, Tourette's and child epilepsy. Patients say it reduces the severity of their symptoms.

Sativex, which is not funded by the drug buying agency Pharmac, has been available in New Zealand since 2008. Medical marijuana campaigners say fewer than 40 patients use it, largely because of the price.

A prescription through a district health board costs patients around $1200 a month, or $1500 if it is ordered with a chemist. Medicinal cannabis is used to treat conditions such as chronic pain, terminal cancer, Tourette's and child epilepsy. Patients say it reduces the severity of their symptoms.

The parents of 10-year-old Wairarapa girl Grace Yeats say Sativex helped restore their daughter's speech after she was affected by a rare brain condition called basal ganglia necrosis. The family hope she will be the next applicant to get approval for the cheaper product.

Hickey's success follows the rejection of a similar application by trade unionist Helen Kelly. She wanted to use a cannabis product to alleviate symptoms of terminal lung cancer. Kelly, 52, died on Friday.

Earlier in the week a 17,000 signature petition was delivered to parliament asking for the legalisation of marijuana for medical purposes. It was presented by Nelson activist Rose Renton.

Multiple sclerosis sufferer Dr Huhana Hickey is thrilled she will have access to a cheaper medicinal marijuana product for pain relief. Photo/ Dean Purcell
Multiple sclerosis sufferer Dr Huhana Hickey is thrilled she will have access to a cheaper medicinal marijuana product for pain relief. Photo/ Dean Purcell

Her son Alex died in hospital from a prolonged epileptic seizure. Renton got permission to give Alex medicinal cannabis just before he died.

In recent opinion polls up to three quarters of the voting population have indicated they're in favour of the legalisation of medicinal cannabis.

Campaigners claim tens of thousands of patients are growing their own or resorting to black market marijuana because of the high cost of the legal alternative. It's estimated that the street price for the equivalent amount of marijuana in a $1200 bottle of Sativex is just $50-60.

Parents have spoken anonymously to the Herald on Sunday about boiling up cannabis heads on the stove to make oil to treat their epileptic children.
For Huhana Hickey, home-made was never an option. She says she has to know exactly what she's taking.

"I need the security and safety of having the product delivered and the knowledge that it is measured and not tainted with anything else. I can't afford to take that physical or legal risk."

The campaigning charity Medical Cannabis Awareness NZ supported Hickey's application for the new concentrate.

Spokesman Shane Le Brun said: "There are many people suffering while waiting for legal access, who balk at the price of Sativex. We hope that Tilray products will be recognised over time as a 'close enough' equivalent to Sativex to spare patients the exorbitant cost."

Le Brun says the other reason for the lack of uptake of Sativex the difficulty in finding an anaesthetist who will agree to prescribing medicinal cannabis. He hopes this decision will change things.

"Once we have a few more approvals through then specialists will have less room to squirm and avoid the issue."

Le Brun hopes that eventually new cannabis medicines will not require ministerial sign off.

Dunne would not comment but his office indicated that in the future approval for recognised products such as Tilray was likely to become routine.

"Hopefully this will open door for others in need," says Hickey.

- Herald on Sunday

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