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Medicinal cannabis clinic gives alternative to black market, but access still out of reach for many

A new medicinal cannabis clinic that opened in Wellington in December will give patients an alternative to the black market but only for those who can afford the expensive prescriptions, the Drug Foundation shared with RNZ.

Sarah Helm, arthritis sufferer and executive director of the Drug Foundation, has experienced the life changing impact of medicinal cannabis.

"I had gotten to the point where at times it felt like every bone in my feet were broken and I could barely walk.” Helm told RNZ.

"And within several weeks [of taking the product], pain and inflammation have basically disappeared and I have a completely different life as a result."

Despite medicinal cannabis being legal in New Zealand, many patients face significant difficulties getting access to cannabis products due to cost, misperception and lack of information.

Cannabinoid products have no intoxicating effects and can be taken to treat the symptoms of autoimmune diseases, epilepsy, chronic pain and anxiety.

"Because the drugs aren't funded, most people cannot afford to purchase them even if they were able to obtain a prescription."

Even with a prescription, products can cost upwards of $1000 per month.

"The cost of accessing legal medicinal cannabis products is a massive barrier for people, and one that NUBU is working hard to address. As the local NZ market establishes we would expect the prices to fall, bringing it in reach of those who require it." - Will Douglas, NUBU Pharmaceuticals

Helm said GPs also felt uncomfortable prescribing their patients with medicinal cannabis due to a lack of information.

Last year, NZ Doctor published research showing that 79 percent of GPs in New Zealand had concerns prescribing medicinal cannabis.

"Because of those access issues we are seeing patients having to turn to the black market.” said Helm.

"While attitudes are slowly changing, the stigma around medicinal cannabis is still prevalent, and is contributing to the barriers that some people face in accessing medicinal cannabis treatment." said Douglas.

Dr Bryan Betty, Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners Medical Director, said the evidence base for medicinal cannabis was still evolving but GPs were hesitant about prescribing without robust trial data and with current research being “reasonably poor”.

GP David Feng opened Wellington’s Cannadoc clinic in December and is one of the very few medicinal cannabis specialists in the country.

Feng previously helped found a cannabis clinic in Melbourne and said the stigma around the drug stopped some doctors from prescribing it.

"A lot of doctors and patients have been told some ... unfortunate mistruths about medicinal cannabis.” said Feng

"There is no real lethal toxic dose you can give on medicinal cannabis... as opposed to... opiates where eventually everybody can hit a lethal dose.”

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