The new government sees local production of cannabis-based medicines as likely in the medium term – but "green fairies" currently distributing cannabis to patients shouldn't expect any shelter from the law.
Jacinda Ardern's government has promised that "medicinal cannabis will be made available for people with terminal illnesses or in chronic pain" in its first 100 days and the Minister of Health, David Clark, and his officials have been working to determine exactly what that promise will mean.
Meanwhile, "green fairies" such as Nelson woman Rose Renton face serious charges for distributing their own products – sometimes to patients who have been referred by GPs and even specialists. The Weekend Herald understands the Government will not intervene there. But it may move to provide some legal shelter to patients, especially those with terminal illnesses – an area where there is said to be broad agreement between the three governing parties.
The Weekend Herald has been told by a senior ministry source that the initial announcement, subject to Cabinet sign-off and due in early February, will focus on improving access to pharmaceutical and near-pharmaceutical grade products, including Sativex and functionally equivalent products from the Canadian manufacturers Tilray, CanniMed and CannTrust. That will include whole-cannabis products for use in vapourisers if there is an assay to guarantee the contents.
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These products meet doctors' demands for the contents of prescription medicines to be measured, but uptake has been low: as few as 50 New Zealanders at any one time. By contrast, according to a 2013 Ministry of Health survey, as many 200,000 New Zealanders use cannabis as least partly for its perceived medical benefit, with the highest rate of medical use among women over the age of 55.
Part of the problem is cost. Pharmac's bid to subsidise Sativex in 2015 was shut down by its own advisory committee – in part over fears of diversion for illicit use. The equivalent British regulator takes the opposite view and believes the risk of diversion is low.
But the high cost of products – as much as $1200 a month for Sativex – is also down to the complexity of importing the products, and the government is likely to at least signal a path to local growing and manufacture of cannabis medicines. Although it has been theoretically possible to grow for research purposes, potential producers say the barriers are currently too high.
The Weekend Herald understands there is one potential breakthrough for medical cannabis advocates. The ministry has been battling the evidence of another government agency, ESR, in insisting that that CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid derived from cannabis plant, is a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act. That battle may be abandoned, which could in turn lead to CBD becoming an off-the-shelf product, as it is in Britain.
The New Zealand Medical Association recently released a new position statement on medical cannabis, criticising the current approvals system as "overly time-consuming and bureaucratic". The association noted that "the prohibitionist approach to cannabis" has hindered research into potential benefits and said it was "important that doctors engage in continuing education as the evidence regarding cannabis continues to evolve."
The NZMA also acknowledged the "wide range of risks" associated with cannabis itself, but said that "these need to be considered in a similar light to the risks and side-effect profile of existing medications."