Sick Kiwis forced onto black market by Govt's restrictive new medicinal cannabis regime

The Government's new medicinal cannabis regime was supposed to make it easy for us to use cannabis to treat pain, nausea and anxiety. But patients and doctors say it's about to make things a whole lot worse. 

George is two-and-a-half, and loves his toy planes and cars, but he's had a rough year. As the country went into its first lockdown, his parents Gavin and Niki got the news no parents want to hear - a devastating diagnosis of leukemia. 

"We had to be rushed down to Christchurch, immediately," said Niki.

The family got a prescription for medicinal cannabis extract cannabidiol - or CBD - which has little to no psychoactive effects. Two days later George crawled up the stairs for the first time. But it didn't stop his persistent nausea and vomiting.

"You're going to go to the end of the earth for your kid if they're dying before your eyes. His quality of life was just nil," Gavin said.  

They wanted to try THC - tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component of cannabis. It can help nausea - but the only product they could legally get wasn't right for George.

Instead, they contacted a 'green fairy', an illegal supplier of cannabis for sick people. The family says the THC product was like "night and day".

"We no longer had to sit with a vomit bucket, and he wasn't in so much pain," said Niki.  

It's a story Newshub Nation has heard again and again - patients, sick and frustrated by the prescription system, turning to green fairies.

Price is one reason. The other is bureaucracy.  Dr Mark Hotu says prescriptions usually need an eight page recommendation from a specialist. At least - at the end of that process - there have been lots of products to choose from. But that's about to change.

"I'm really disappointed with the Ministry of health. They came in with really good intention... but there was a hitch," he told Newshub Nation.  

Next month, April, products will have to meet a new standard. The Ministry of Health says 33 product applications are in. Just two have been approved - both of them on Friday night, ahead of this story airing.

Unless there is urgent change this month, the options at Dr Hotu's clinic will shrink dramatically, with up to 95 percent of patients unable to access their current medication. 

Two Tilray products were approved Friday night, but those who rely on other brands fear their medicine will be gone. Dr Hotu doesn't prescribe Tilray because his patients find it too expensive. 

One of the two products authorised under the new regime.
One of the two products authorised under the new regime. Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

"You can go and pick tilray up down the road here for $350, you can go down to Timaru or Whanganui and it'll cost you $550," he said. 

Medicinal cannabis user Gareth Duff uses one of the cheaper CBD oils on prescription to stop epileptic seizures. It's unlikely to get the tick by April and he simply can't afford the more expensive Tilray products.

"It's just helped me hugely. The thought of losing that is really quite frightening," he said. 

"If that disappears, where does that leave me? I could have seizures again. That's a life threatening condition I could be exposed to because they are just taking this product away from me."

That's on top of dealing with a life-changing condition.

"There's all that stress to worry about and now there's the 'oh no, they could take this away from me."

The company importing Gareth's medicinal cannabis, MedLeaf, has been trying for a year to tick all the boxes the Ministry of Health requires under the new regime. Their products are due to be taken off the shelves by April - that's in less than a month. 

An attempt to import another cheaper product called CleverLeaves stopped short because its Croatian pharmaceutical stamp isn't recognised here.

Medleaf business development manager Shane Le Brun says New Zealand's high standards can be met eventually, but not in the short term.

"They are basically cancelling better in the pursuit of perfect. In the short-term, that's likely to push people more to the black market."

Medicinal cannabis companies want a parallel regime with another country. Somewhere like Germany - so if a company passes all the lab tests required there, it can be imported here too.

"Products that are approved in Germany are shelf-life stable, they are accurate to label, they have all that data to show that they are good enough," said Le Brun. 

Even the Government appears to have been caught off-guard by how difficult its own regulations are to meet.

Then-Health Minister David Clark announced in April 2020 the first medicinal cannabis licences were expected to be issued by mid-2020. It took until now - nine months later than anticipated - for the very first approval. 

Now the health portfolio's in Andrew Little's hands. 

"The advice I've received is the products that are currently available will continue to be available after March 31," he said.

A remarkable commitment; too remarkable. After the interview, Little's office confirmed he'd misspoken, saying in a statement: "Regardless of the exemption expiring in March, [I am advised] products will be available." 

Some products, not all. Little said he is open to extending the time existing products can be prescribed beyond the end of this month, but he's not planning on easing the standard.

"I'm not anticipating changing that any time soon. I've got to make sure that safety is paramount," he said.

Dr Hotu however says the products he has been providing are "very safe".

"I've never had anyone that's needed to stop CBD in two-and-a-half years due to side effects."

The medical cannabis regime was designed to make life easier for the sickest New Zealanders. But it's that regime currently forcing them onto the black market.

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