Medicinal cannabis oil available in NZ

There is improved availability of medicinal cannabis oil in New Zealand, with it now being available for GPs to prescribe. It is a cheaper option but could still be prohibitively expensive.

RNZ: Medicinal cannabis oil arrives in NZ

The arrival of a new, cheaper medicinal cannabis product in New Zealand is good news for patients but will still be prohibitively expensive for many, advocates say.

The cannabis oil, produced by Canadian company Tilray, was first granted an export licence to New Zealand in February, but until now has only been shipped to Middlemore Hospital in Auckland.

However, the first shipment that will be made available for GPs to prescribe has now arrived in the country.

It contains cannabidiol (CBD) – a cannabinoid that has been shown to have therapeutic properties, but is considered a class B drug under New Zealand law so cannot be advertised or promoted by the company.

Medical Cannabis Awareness New Zealand coordinator Shane Le Brun said the product had arrived “in the last week or so”.

“It is now available for GPs to prescribe… [but] as an unregistered medicine they can’t make therapeutic claims and as a controlled drug they can’t advertise … so it’s kind of snuck in under the radar.”

Since September, doctors have been able to prescribe CBD products without needing approval from the Health Minister.

The often unfairly maligned ex-MP Peter Dunne deserves some credit for this.

Trials are underway to test Tilray products’ effectiveness for treating childhood epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder and nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients.

Paediatric doctors here did not want to over-sell the benefits of the oil, “but certainly it does play a role for some of the severe [epilepsy] patients”, Mr Le Brun said.

“Without there being substantial evidence, they still think it’s worth a shot.”

Because it’s one of the few options that offer hope of improvement. But it is still very expensive.

The wholesale cost of a single bottle of the oil was about $600 – about half the cost of the only other widely available medicinal cannabis product in New Zealand, Mr Le Brun said. However, he expected the retail mark-up would probably put the price to patients at between $900 and $1000 a bottle.

Because Tilray was not a registered medicine, it was ineligible for Pharmac funding.

“Depending on the weight of a child for epilepsy, that bottle might only last three or four days, so without a political solution on the cost it still doesn’t change anything for the patients who are most in need.”

Most parents will not be able to afford that.

A much larger evidence base would be needed to get the product registered as a medicine and seek Pharmac subsidies, he said.

Labour has made medicinal cannabis one of it’s first 100 days priorities:

  • Introduce legislation to make medicinal cannabis available for people with terminal illnesses or in chronic pain

As well as this commitment they have the legacy of Helen Kelly to honour – Kelly openly talked about using cannabis products to ease her suffering as she died of cancer.

The Greens should also support it. They have an agreement with Labour to take cannabis law further, but later – “and have a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at, or by, the 2020 general election”.

However Parliament needs a majority. Labour are committed, as are the Greens, but either NZ First or National (unlikely given their past lack of fortitude on medicinal cannabis) to get it passed into law.

New Zealand remains reliant to a large extent on progress in research of medicinal cannabis internationally.

A major anomaly remains – it is legal to drown your sorrows and self medicate with alcohol, but puffing away your pains is policed and punishable.

Cheaper medicinal cannabis product approved

The only legal medicinal cannabis product available in New Zealand until now has been Sativex, a mouth spray that has been prohibitively expensive for many people.

Another product that is less than half the price, Tilray, has just been approved by Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne after Dr Huhana Hickey applied to use it.

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

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.

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.

Kelly’s application was rejected and she didn’t try again, instead choosing to illegally use medicinal cannabis, openly flaunting the law.

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.

It’s a toe in the door. Now Hickey’s application has succeeded expect more people to apply to use Tilray.