The volume of medicinal cannabis prescribed by doctors in New Zealand is up 84 per cent in the first six months of 2020 according to new Government data.
Medicinal cannabis use is heavily regulated in New Zealand under regulations of the Misuse of Drugs Act and Medicines Act.
The data was released from patient research compiled and analysed by Cannabis Clinic doctors in Auckland, whose medical practice is the country's largest prescriber of medicinal cannabis.
Every prescription for medicinal cannabis written by a doctor must be notified to the Government.
The Government data shows that in January of this year there were 1002 prescriptions for medicinal cannabis but by July this has increased to 1842.
Of those applications for medicinal cannabis, Manawatū-Whanganui residents make up 3 per cent of the national total.
Forty per cent of these applications are for conditions that cause chronic pain - higher than the national average of 27 per cent.
Patient application data for the Manawatū-Whanganui region shows 40 per cent is for chronic pain, 17 per cent of mental health conditions, 17 per cent for sleep, 12 per cent for digestion, 3 per cent for neurological issues, 4 per cent for skin complaints, and 7 per cent for cancer.
Cannabis Clinic spokesman Dr Waseem Alzaher says the stigma associated with medicinal cannabis may add further stress to patients already living with a range of mental health conditions.
"Popular belief is that medicinal cannabis is used primarily to help those living with cancer manage the symptoms.
"However our analysis of several thousand prospective patient files found that those with this disease made up only 2 per cent.
"What is not commonly understood is that there is a significant level of stigma associated with medicinal cannabis to the point that we have referrals from other GPs who want to help their patients but do not want to be seen prescribing it for them.
"Our concern is that for the thousands of Kiwis living with mental health conditions who find relief from their symptoms, the additional stigma in society may only represent a further challenge in their daily lives," Dr Alzaher said.
He says their dispensary supplies around one in every five medicinal cannabis prescriptions in New Zealand, and is the only Government-authorised medical practice permitted to prescribe products with Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis in the country.
"We are seeing more patients every month apply to see us for conditions which have a significant impact on their lives.
"As a result, our medical practice is expanding nationwide and it will double the number of doctors we have throughout the regions."
The clinic has recently taken on the country's first medicinal cannabis specialist nurse.
"The role of the nurse will be to follow up with patients once they begin taking the medication, to ensure they are taking the right dosage and not getting any side effects."
He said the nurse will also assist with any issues the patient may have with their employer, or legal questions they may have as a result of taking their prescriptions.
"We provide the relevant paperwork to support them where needed."
Dr Alzaher says the stigma around even the legal prescriptions of medicinal cannabis is systemic throughout New Zealand society and has impacted their ability to establish their clinic. Almost all banks and finance companies decline their applications for accounts, payment systems and lending within minutes.
He says with the word "cannabis" in the company name, they have also struggled to register a web URL and have faced challenges setting up a social media presence, as well as marketing themselves on such platforms.
"In addition to the barriers we have faced initially starting the business from financial institutions and social media, there were also questions around the legality of using a telehealth model.
"The Covid pandemic has helped change that as overnight telehealth has become mainstream in the medical profession.
"We have also had the demand for our services skyrocket since Covid, with many more Kiwis experiencing mental health issues, and a large number of patients who have had their surgeries postponed who have to deal with chronic pain.
"At its peak, we were booked up for two months in advance," he said.
Dr Alzaher said many doctors are conflicted as they want to prescribe medicinal cannabis for patients but are worried about their name appearing on prescriptions and the stigma attached to it.
Doctors say more needs to be done to address the stigma as it is impacting those with mental health issues.
Dr Alzaher says New Zealand is behind other international markets such as the US and Canada, where medicinal cannabis is seen as more of a wellness product.