Blog | Green Doctors: How Medical Marijuana is Progressing in New Zealand

by Callia Drinkwater

If the cannabis referendum pamphlet seemed slightly out of touch to you when it claimed that “The proposed Bill does not cover medical cannabis… These are covered by existing laws.” you’re not alone. New Zealand legalising medicinal marijuana slipped entirely under the radar for many, and for good reason – it only came into force on the 1st April 2020, six days after the beginning of lockdown and more pressing matters were occupying the headlines. While we now look ahead to the 2020 election, with two incredibly controversial ballots attached, it’s time to reflect on how the Medical Marijuana Scheme has affected New Zealand so far. What systems are currently at play enabling the prescription of this typically illicit drug? 

Background History

In 2017 the newly sworn in government announced its commitment to make medicinal cannabis available for people with a terminal illness or chronic pain. Since then the idea has been through rigorous processes in parliament and in December of 2018 the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act 2018 came into force. A year later the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Regulation 2019 was created and on the 1st April 2020 it came into force – allowing doctors licenced to practice in New Zealand to prescribe Ministry of Health approved THC and CBD products to patients.

What has actually changed so far?In December 2019, 20 companies were licenced to grow cannabis for research purposes, and a further 238 were licenced to grow industrial hemp. Due to the simple transition, many of these

companies were expected to jump on this new source of revenue, and many entities such as Helius Therapeutics, Cannasouth, Hikurangi Cannabis Company, and Zeacann are all now licenced to cultivate marijuana for medicinal purposes. 

While this sounds like a big jump, so far no products have been submitted for assessment to the Ministry of Health – however companies licenced are already investing in creating new products such as soft gel capsules and vaporized cannabis flower. This means that currently only CBD oil and Sativex (an oral spray with THC) are available for prescription – as they were approved by other methods before the 1st April.

But how many New Zealanders does this affect?

In 2012/2013 the Ministry of Health compiled a survey showing that 11% of participants over the age of 15 reported using marijuana in the past 12 months. 42% of users considered the use medicinal, and in people over the age of 55 this percentage was even higher. How this is reflected in a GPs office is yet to be recorded, but organisations like Norml – a pro cannabis organisation since 1980 – claim medicinal use can ease the symptoms of conditions not limited to:

  • Tourette’s Syndrome
  • Nausea during chemotherapy
  • Chronic pain
  • Hypertension
  • HIV

What issues are seen in this system?

According to the Cannabis Clinic, current legislation leaves two major problems with the system; high costs and lack of expertise. High costs are cited due to the demanding trials that medicinal cannabis must go through before arriving in a licenced pharmacy. These are seen as adding to a price that inevitably stops it being accessible to all, however the payoffs of a reliable high quality product do counteract this to a degree. In terms of lack of expertise, this can only be expected when such changes are so new and GPs are unfamiliar with how exactly to deal with newly available medicines. Due to the reputation of marijuana it is easy to see why many doctors remain wary around the product and some reluctant to provide it to patients. As products are developed and more research is done in the meantime, new information will inform these doctors’ experiences and lead them to be confident with this newly legal substance. Currently there are specific clinics that specialise in THC and CBD medications such as Green Doctors or the aforementioned Cannabis Clinic which have expertise in these areas. 

Whether you intend to vote yes or no on this year’s Cannabis Legalisation and Control Referendum, it is important to know what is already available and how medicinal marijuana may interact with recreational marijuana in the public sphere. For more information specific to this year’s referendums please refer to http://www.referendums.govt.nz for non-partisan information concerning both recreational marijuana and the End of Life Choice Referendum.

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