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Medicinal cannabis regulations disguise solid progress

The medicinal cannabis sector is delivering for Kiwi patients. However, most of its successes continue to fly under the radar. This is partly due to regulations which heavily restrict what can be communicated to both doctors and patients, not to mention the public.

Recently, Health Minister Andrew Little acknowledged the sector’s significant progress. Speaking at our annual industry summit, MedCan 2022, he said pioneering work producing safe products that consumers want and building a world-class export industry is now underway. This has been achieved despite the medicinal cannabis scheme being less than two years old.

Yes, the quality standards and cost to regulatory compliance have been high. However, high standards are all about protecting patients, giving prescribers confidence, and ensuring New Zealand’s reputation as a world leading, trusted supplier into the future.

At MedCan, Mr Little confirmed 39 active licences are in play, covering cultivation, possession for manufacture and supply activities. Three companies have been granted licences to manufacture medicinal cannabis products and “locally manufactured CBD products are available that cost less than imported products,” he observed.

Days later we read that the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders who use cannabis for medicinal purposes are accessing it illegally. Careful analysis by the New Zealand Drug Foundation found that only six percent – or about 17,000 people – obtained cannabis via a doctor’s prescription in 2020.

Likewise, a Massey University study released in January concluded that while the objective of greater access to medicinal cannabis has progressed in some ways, inequitable access to products remains a significant issue for many patients.

Undeniably, more Kiwi-manufactured products need to be verified and volumes increased to ensure patients have a wider range of more cost-effective options. However, not helping the perception is the fact that manufacturers like us are restricted about what we can say. In short, Section 29 of the Medicines Act prohibits us from advertising medicinal cannabis, let alone publicly talking about our products or even clarifying their availability.

Such is the frustration at not being able to sing our sector’s recent successes that it was raised at MedCan. We continue to read news reports about patients’ unable to afford expensive overseas products, yet we can’t meaningfully respond with positive local developments that are now changing the landscape and improving patient equity.

High GMP standards add considerable confidence, but until us manufacturers go through exhaustive clinical trials and our products achieve approved medicines status, we’re almost relying on patients telling other patients.

While it’s claimed only six percent of Kiwi medicinal cannabis users access it legally, let’s not forget that was 2020, with the scheme only taking effect that April. Nearly two years on and we’ve seen big improvements, with Helius becoming first medicinal cannabis business to gain a GMP Licence to Manufacture Medicines last year and set to export this year.

Every GP in New Zealand is now able to prescribe medicinal cannabis for any condition – but let’s remember it’s still a very new frontier of natural care. The endocannabinoid system was only discovered around 30 years ago so wasn’t part of many of our GPs medical training. This is one of the reasons that the Drug Foundation is correct with its observation that it remains hard to get a prescription because many doctors are not comfortable enough to prescribe the products.

Massey University’s study assessing the scheme’s progress also concluded that “there is a need for further investment in general practitioner information and training to improve confidence in prescribing cannabis products.” I wholeheartedly agree.

Thankfully many more Kiwi healthcare professionals are already genuinely curious and actively educating themselves. We know this not only through recent prescription data, but we’re seeing greater registrations to educational resources like and events such as MedCan, specifically designed to improve prescriber knowledge.

As for prices, I can only point to the Minister’s observations about what locally manufactured CBD products are achieving when compared to the imported brands. Further, he noted at MedCan that “supply and demand economics should see consumer prices come down as more products come to market.”

It has been over three years since Parliament unanimously passed the legislation to enable a local medicinal cannabis sector, finally giving Kiwi patients legal access to quality local products at affordable prices. That rare show of parliamentary unity, helped by overwhelming public support for a local sector, also counted on an economic return for our country.

New Zealand has achieved a notable slice of the international wine market, and I believe there’s no reason why we can’t do the same with medicinal cannabis. The global cannabis market is expected to grow from over $18b in 2020 to over $60b by 2025. Even a sliver of this will be well worth getting, creating more local businesses and jobs in the industry and supporting services.

Like most things, New Zealand is best not to compete on quantity in a commodity market, but we will achieve superior quality. Our product standards are among the highest internationally and our country’s marketing image is strong. What’s more, our research and development success at delivering innovative products and solutions will ensure New Zealand medicinal cannabis comes with a big competitive edge.

While statutory silence hangs over many of us, it’s important for the public to know that our country’s newest sector is now making a real difference for both Kiwi patients and the economy – with 2022 set to deliver even more wins on the ground.

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