New Zealanders with chronic illnesses are applauding the Government's decision to allow doctors to prescribe a cannabis-sourced substance.
Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne announced today that restrictions would be removed for cannabidiol, or CBD, bringing New Zealand into line with other countries including Australia.
Until now, CBD has been classed as a controlled drug, meaning the Ministry of Health needed to approve its use. Extracted from cannabis, it has little or no psychoactive properties and can be used for pain relief.
One of those welcoming the rule change is Molly Kelsey, from Auckland. She has epilepsy and a psychogenic disorder and takes up to eight medications a day.
The 24-year-old said she had been seizure-free for five months, but on bad days she had 10 to 20 seizures a day. She can't drive, can only work part time, and suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome.
"I'm on a whole bunch of meds at the moment, like a cocktail. If I could even just get off one of them by using CBD oil it would be amazing. That would just change my life."
Kelsey said she did not meet the threshold for CBD under the existing regime, which required sign-off from the ministry.
"My neurologist told me that ... basically I wasn't having enough seizures and they weren't violent enough to qualify.
"They were looking at me having surgery, which was going to be more viable than actually getting access to CBD oil. Which is ridiculous."
The rule change comes after several high-profile campaigns.
Unionist Helen Kelly took cannabis for pain relief before her death from cancer last year, and urged the Government to allow her to do so legally.
Nelson teenager Alex Renton was the first person to get approval to use CBD before his death in 2015. His mother Rose Renton now has a petition before Parliament which aims to improve access to medical cannabis in New Zealand, at an affordable price.
Dunne said today that he made his decision about the drug after advice from an expert committee, and he was pleased that Cabinet had accepted his recommendation.
"In practical terms, the changes mean CBD would be able to be prescribed by a doctor to their patient and supplied in a manner similar to any other prescription medicine."
Dunne said some barriers remained to getting access to the drug, in particular New Zealanders' ability to import it.
There is a limited range of medical-grade CBD products, and there are strict limits in many countries on importing and exporting the drug.
"However, we do know of at least one CBD product in development made to high manufacturing standards that will contain two per cent or less of the other cannabinoids found in cannabis," Dunne said.
Doctors will be able prescribe up to three months' supply of CBD.
NZ Drug Foundation director Ross Bell applauded the move, saying it was a "very good decision" based on expert evidence.
"It represents another positive move forward to remove some of the barriers that patients are faced with in accessing medical cannabis products."
It did not resolve the issue of the drug's cost, he said. CBD-only drugs remained expensive because they were not subsidised by Pharmac.
Another obstacle was doctors' scepticism about prescribing CBD, he said.
In February, Dunne agreed to delegate approval for medical marijuana applications to the ministry. Until then, any applications had required ministerial sign-off.