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Data reveals medicinal cannabis being prescribed for a variety of conditions in New Zealand

The volume of medicinal cannabis prescribed by doctors in New Zealand is up 84% in the first six months of 2020 according to new Government data.

Medicinal cannabis use is heavily regulated in NZ. Under regulations made under the Misuse of Drugs Act and Medicines Act, every prescription for medicinal cannabis written by a doctor must be notified to Government.

The Government data shows that in January of this year there were 1,002 prescriptions for medicinal cannabis but by July this has increased to 1,842. 

Patient application data shows a quarter (26%) of 4,400 patients seeking more information about medicinal cannabis are living with mental health conditions including anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorder or, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which may result from abuse at some time in their life.

The patient research which was compiled and analysed by a group of doctors at the Cannabis Clinic, whose medical practice is the country’s largest prescriber of medicinal cannabis, found the most common reason for seeking treatment was to assist with the management of pain which made up 27% of applications. Mental health conditions were the second most common while issues with sleep such as chronic insomnia made up a further quarter of applications. 

Support for digestive complaints made up a tenth of applications while neurological and skin conditions each made up 5% of patient inquiry.

More than a third (37%) of applications originate from patients in the Auckland region, with Cantabrians and Wellingtonians making up a further 11% each. Waikato patients make up almost one in every ten (9%) applications, while Bay of Plenty and Otago account for 8% and 6% respectively.

Dr Waseem Alzaher, spokesperson for the Cannabis Clinic, says the stigma associated with medicinal cannabis may add further stress to patients already living with a range of mental health conditions.

“Popular belief is that medicinal cannabis is used primarily to help those living with cancer manage the symptoms however our analysis of several thousand prospective patient files found that those with this disease made up only 2%. 

“What is not commonly understood is that there is a significant level of stigma associated with medicinal cannabis to the point that we have referrals from other GPs who want to help their patients but do not want to be seen prescribing it for them,” he says.

“Our concern is that for the thousands of Kiwis living with mental health conditions who find relief from their symptoms, the additional stigma in society may only represent a further challenge in their daily lives,” he says. 

Dr Waseem Alzaher

Dr Alzaher says their dispensary supplies around one in every five medicinal cannabis prescriptions in New Zealand and is the only Government authorised medical practice permitted to prescribe products with Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis in the country. 

“We are seeing more patients every month apply to see us for conditions which have a significant impact on their lives. As a result, our medical practice is expanding nationwide and it will double the number of doctors we have throughout the regions and, we have recently taken on the country’s first medicinal cannabis specialist nurse.

“The role of the nurse will be to follow up with patients once they begin taking the medication to ensure they are taking the right dosage, not getting any side effects but also to assist with any issues they may have with their employer or legal questions they may have as a result of taking their prescriptions and help provide the relevant paperwork to support them where needed,” he says.

Dr Alzaher says the stigma around even the legal prescriptions of medicinal cannabis is systemic throughout New Zealand society and has impacted their ability to establish their clinic with almost all banks and finance companies declining their applications for accounts, payment systems and lending within minutes.

He says with the word “cannabis” in the company name, they have also struggled to register a web URL and have faced challenges setting up a social media presence as well as marketing themselves on this platform.

“In addition to the barriers we have faced initially starting the business from financial institutions and social media, there were also questions around the legality of using a telehealth model.

“The COVID pandemic has helped change that as overnight telehealth has become mainstream in the medical profession.

“We have also had the demand for our services skyrocket since COVID with many more Kiwis experiencing mental health issues and a large number of patients who have had their surgeries postponed and who have to deal with chronic pain.”

“At its peak, we were booked up for two months in advance,” he says.

Dr Alzaher says New Zealand is behind other international markets such as the US and Canada where medicinal cannabis is seen as more of a wellness product. 

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