Medicinal cannabis prescriptions rise by 84% in New Zealand

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

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 permitted in New Zealand under the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme, enacted in April 2020. 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. If this growth rate continues the Zealand market could see 3,389 prescriptions per month by February 2021.

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).

The patient research which was compiled and analysed by a group of doctors at Cannabis Clinic, whose medical practice a leading 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.

Neurological and mental health conditions were the second most common, while sleep disorders – 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%." says Dr Alzaher.

“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.

He says their dispensary supplies around one in every five medicinal cannabis prescriptions in New Zealand.

“We are seeing more patients every month apply to see us for conditions which have a significant impact on their lives," he says,

“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 widely accepted a wellness product.

Early estimates of New Zealand's medicinal cannabis market suggest we will reach NZ$320 million in prescription sales within the next 10 years, made up of NZ$70 million in domestic scripts and NZ$250 million in exports.

Australian market continues to grow

Across the Tasman, Australia’s market for medical cannabis is expected to triple this year to about AU$95 million (NZ$102 million) in product sales, according to a new report published by North Sydney-based data firm FreshLeaf Analytics.

FreshLeaf anticipates the number of active patients – through all access pathways – will have grown to more than 30,000 by the end of this year.

That is a significant jump over an estimated 10,000 active patients last December.

The analytics company said it expects Australia to close the year with around 60,000 approvals via the Special Access Scheme Category B route (also known as SAS-B), which is used to provide patients with access to “unapproved ” medical cannabis products.

FreshLeaf provided the caveat: “SAS-B approval numbers, while cited regularly, have increasingly become an unreliable estimate of market activity.”

“Patients have multiple SAS-B approvals – 2.3 on average – and alternative pathways such as Pharmacy Compounding and Authorised Prescribers, which allows a doctor to write a prescription for a product without patient-by-patient approval, are increasingly contributing to market numbers,” the company said.

The report says lower prices are a fixture in the market.

“The price war is escalating and the last year has brought the largest drop in price since the inception of the legal industry in Australia with the minimum recommended retail price sitting at around 6 cents per milligram,” according to the report.

The number of available products rose 50% in the last six months. There are now 150 products now on the market. Medical cannabis extracts – those in oil format – lead with 89 products in the market, followed by flower (29 products). Spray, capsules, tablets and wafers accounted for 32 products, FreshLeaf said.

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