Cannabis referendum raises questions over its medicinal use

11:55 am on 7 September 2020

Those involved in the cannabis business in New Zealand say one of the biggest areas of confusion ahead of the upcoming referendum is the legality, or not, of medicinal cannabis.

Medical marijuana buds in daily pill organizer with branded prescription bottle lid sitting on green background

Medical marijuana buds and seeds. Photo: 123RF

Both a doctor specialising in prescribing medicinal marijuana and a medicinal cannabis producer say both sides of the debate are fudging their messages.

To be clear, medicinal use is already permitted, but there is only one approved drug on the market.

The rest are 'unapproved' drugs that can be prescribed by a doctor, but have not gone through the medical testing Medsafe deems appropriate.

One of those doctors is Mark Hotu, a GP at Green Doctors in Ponsonby.

"Even someone like myself who works with medicinal cannabis 24/7, 365 days a year, it's even confusing for me," he said.

"I'm not surprised that the average person in New Zealand is also confused as well."

Dr Hotu said the confused messages around medicinal use are a reflection of the way cannabis has been perceived over a long time.

Cannabis based drugs have been the subject of only a few quality studies to determine their effectiveness.

Dr Hotu said that will change in coming years, as the stigma around cannabis lifts.

One company which hopes to run those clinical trials is Helius Therapeutics.

Its chief executive, Paul Manning, said they have dedicated $10 million to drug trials.

"To be honest I think the main driver for funding for cannabis medicines will be clinical data to prove how these products are safe and how they work and a much larger demand for them through the general patient community," Manning said.

"I think when these products become common place medicines like other medicines in New Zealand, that's probably going to become a larger driver for Pharmac funding."

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Paul Manning from Helius Therapeutics says his company plans to run clinical trials to determine the effectiveness of medicinal cannabis. Photo: RNZ / Teresa Cowie

Manning said his company will run a number of trials over the next few years, and will submit that data to Pharmac.

But he said the cost of unapproved cannabis medicines will drop before that, because they are starting to be made here.

He supports the referendum, because he thinks it will reduce overall harm.

"Prohibition has been an abject failure.

"It hasn't stopped the availability of cannabis in New Zealand, and it hasn't slowed its consumption as hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders use cannabis every day and they're breaking the law.

"The current system, in my view, hasn't worked."

Dr Hotu said he is sitting on the fence at the moment, but he is leaning towards voting no to the referendum.

He said legalisation would cause harm to communities, not necessarily because of cannabis itself, but because of the impacts of smoking.

"I can see the arguments on both sides. I hear the arguments from the Drug Foundation, and they've got some really valid arguments on the side of to support it," Dr Hotu said.

"But as a GP, the thing that's most important to me is safety. Safety for my patients and safety for the communities of New Zealand.

"If you look at the evidence of what's happened in Canada, we're going to have more people smoking and I don't think that's really the way that we want to go."

Pharmac's director of operations, Lisa Williams, said Pharmac will consider funding any medicinal cannabis products that are cleared and recommended for use.

But to date, only one medicinal cannabis product has been approved, and it is not funded by Pharmac.

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