People in chronic pain and the terminally ill will have to wait until at least mid-2020 to legally obtain medicinal cannabis, according to a Ministry of Health document – a wait criticised as far too long.
The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill, introduced by Health Minister David Clark in December 2017 under the Government's 100-day plan, is expected to become law by March 2019.
A Health Ministry document, released under the Official Information Act to National's associate health spokesman Shane Reti, shows it is working to a timeline that assumes a 'go-live date' in mid-2020.
This critical path shows the second reading of New Zealand's medicinal cannabis bill is earmarked for November 2018, with a third reading expected in January 2019 and royal ascent a month later in February.
Only then, after the bill is formally passed in April, will regulations and quality standards begin to be written. This leads up to a market 'go-live' date for commercial production and sale of medicinal cannabis products half around mid-2020.
This critical path suggests a year and a half will be spent writing the regulations, which seems unnecessarily protracted.
"We’re thrilled that medicinal cannabis is enjoying unprecedented support but the election was more than a year ago. Providing quality access to locally-produced medicinal cannabis products was part of the government’s a 100-day plan – It’s been nearly 400 days and we must not go on treading water", said Helius executive director, Paul Manning
New Zealand needs to get moving
Patients in New Zealand are suffering and this timeline is interminable.
"Wherever you stand on cannabis reform, the fact is the human body has an incredible biological affinity to this plant. Cannabinoid therapeutics can provide relief without the need for harsh pharmaceuticals, like opiates – and for some people it’s the only thing that works", says Manning.
Politics aside, what the industry liked about Shane Reti’s bill, presented back in July, was visibility. Patients and businesses could see that the work had been done and this could have been largely implemented by the end of this year.
Manning said "Reti's bill presented a solid framework; it provided details of how medicinal cannabis products would be developed, whom we could sell to, and through what channels they would be accessed by patients."
"We are realistic that more work is required to set up regulations and quality standards. To be clear, in our experience so far, Medsafe are doing a great job. I think the Ministry of Health needs support from the government to approach and resource this process accordingly, and to accelerate action", says Manning.
Helius believes it's important the medicinal cannabis bill is not blurred with the country's forthcoming referendum to legalise cannabis for recreational purposes. This could lead to further delays and ongoing political complications.
Delayed regulations or a collapsing medicinal cannabis into the wider liberalisation referendum would have a negative impact on patients and the industry, says Manning.
"From an industry perspective, we want New Zealand to become a competitive player in export markets, ahead of Australia. We only need to look at Canada to see the enormous economic and social opportunity associated with medicinal cannabis reform."
A possible solution
New Zealand needs quality regulations that provide broad access for all patients who can benefit from medicinal cannabis products. This most include those suffer from chronic pain, arthritis and cancer, along with sleep, neurological and gastrointestinal disorders.
We cannot afford to make the same mistakes as Australia, where patient access remains low and prices high.
But we also need to get moving.
Politically, an easy collaboration right now would be to send the current government bill back to a truncated 30-day select committee process and allow the public a further say on regulations that they can actually see and talk to. Then pass this by bipartisan agreement before Christmas.
Greens drug law reform spokeswoman Chloe Swarbrick, whose own medicinal cannabis bill was voted down in January, said her party would like to see the Government's bill go live much sooner than mid-2020.
Swarbrick said she had been speaking to Clark and Reti to get all parties working together.
"We think that it's important to ensure that we are getting the best possible outcomes for patients here. It's unfortunate that politics has obviously got in the way," she said.
Paul Manning, an executive director of medicinal cannabis start-up Helius Therapeutics, said most people had been expecting a go-live date in mid-2019.
"We don't understand why it will take so long to go live. There's a commercial consideration, of course, but we know there are thousands of Kiwis out there who are suffering today because they can't access medicinal cannabis," Manning said.
The Government's medicinal cannabis bill goes further than any previous parliament has been prepared to. The introduction of a medicinal cannabis scheme will increase the availability of medicinal cannabis for pain relief and allow for the domestic manufacturing of quality medicinal products.
Health Minister David Clark said he expected the Ministry of Health would continue to work "at pace".
"If we are to create a strong local industry, with the potential to export internationally, we must take the time to get the regulatory environment right. We need a regime that is both robust and flexible enough to respond to a developing industry".