Medical cannabis expert's message to 'sceptical' politicians: 'We owe it to people suffering'

A medicinal cannabis expert visiting from Canada is urging New Zealand to embrace legalisation and is telling "sceptical" politicians to think of people who are suffering.

"My response to politicians who are sceptical to legalise medical cannabis is that you have to do your research," Danial Schecter, director of global medical services at Canopy Growth Corporation, said.

"As a society, we owe it to ourselves and the people who are suffering, to be able to offer a therapeutic trial of this potentially life-changing medication that will improve patients' quality of life."

Schecter - who claims to have served 400 paediatric patients who went from having more than 100 seizures a day to being "essentially seizure-free" - says cannabis doesn't perform miracles but has the potential to change someone's life.

"First of all, cannabis is not a miracle cure. It is a product that has a number of different chemical components within it that can improve symptoms. We do not say, and we are not advocating in any way, that cannabis is a disease-modifying agent.

"Instead, we say that cannabis or cannabinoids may be beneficial to treat some underlying symptoms of various diseases or conditions that have failed to respond to first or second-line therapies."

How does medical cannabis work?

Within the cannabis plant are two main cannabinoid molecules that have been identified: Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD).

THC has been found in higher concentrations to cause euphoria or impairment. But at lower doses, it can help regulate the body to improve the perception of pain.

"CBD does not cause euphoria or psychoactive activity, but it's been shown to help with inflammation," Schecter said, adding that it's shown to have helped people living with treatment-resistant seizures.

"What is amazing to see is that cannabis is not only able to help their underlying problem, but very often able to ease morbid conditions.

"So not only do they have less pain, but they're able to sleep better, they're able to eat better, they have less anxiety or depression, and very often these people are able to come off a wide variety of medications."

Schecter says it's important not to confuse medicinal cannabis with recreational cannabis, which New Zealanders will vote on whether to legalise at the 2020 election.

"The only thing that medical cannabis and recreational cannabis have in common is the name 'cannabis'. If it were up to me, we would get rid of the term 'medical cannabis', because it is tied way too closely with recreational cannabis.

"We should be talking about cannabinoid-based medicines. In essence, medical cannabis, or cannabinoid-based medicine is fundamentally different than recreational cannabis."

People using cannabis for medical purposes are often using much lower doses, Schecter explained.

"They are using products that are usually higher in CBD and lower in THC...There is also a difference in terms of the methods of administration: most people using cannabis for medical purposes are ingesting it - it is rare that we have patients inhaling cannabis."

The road to legalising medical cannabis

The use of cannabis in New Zealand is regulated by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 making it illegal to possess. But the law was amended last year to allow for a much broader use of it for medical purposes.

The only approved medicinal cannabis product currently allowed in New Zealand is Sativex, a mouth spray intended to alleviate pain. The range of products available is expected to increase once new regulations are in place. 

Health Minister David Clark's Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill passed its final reading in December last year. It allows terminally ill people to possess and use cannabis and utensils for medical purposes. 

A consultation document released by the Government in July suggested making it easier for doctors to prescribe medicinal marijuana by not requiring Ministry of Health approval.

Medsafe group manager Chris James told Newshub regulations will be in place by 18 December and a Medicinal Cannabis Agency will be operational by the middle of 2020.

It'll be in charge of the licensing regime for growing cannabis for medicinal use, the manufacture and supply of products, and standards.

As for whether medicinal cannabis products should be publicly funded, Schecter says the Government should take it slow.

"I think it's a bit of a slippery slope if we agree to cover medical cannabis for all conditions. It would be wise to start slowly and prudently as this can open the floodgates for something we're not yet ready for."

Medicinal cannabis has been legal in Canada since 2001. It became the second nation after Uruguay to legalise recreational cannabis in late 2018.