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Shane Te Pou: THC is not the devil

Shane Te Pou examines the potential gaps should the medicinal cannabis bill currently before Parliament become law 

The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill is currently working its way through Parliament, and if passed, would see the development of a local medicinal cannabis industry in New Zealand. It would also reclassify cannabidiol (CBD) and CBD-based medications with less than 2 percent of other cannabinoids not as controlled drugs.

Although that is a step in the right direction, it would likely leave a large number of patients somewhat in the lurch, still unable to access the medicinal cannabis products they need with ease through legitimate sources.

Given cannabis' relatively recent rebirth as a medicine, research on the plant and its medicinal benefits aren't as plentiful as you'd perhaps hope. But, as more countries legalise for both medicinal and recreational purposes, this is changing.

That doesn't mean to say there isn't in any research - there is. But existing research points to there being benefit to both THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol – the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) and CBD being included in medicinal cannabis products.

For example, treating Multiple Sclerosis with medicinal cannabis requires a medication with near equal parts THC and CBD. It's the same for neuropathic pain, advanced cancer pain and rheumatoid arthritis that's not controlled by standard medication.

However, should the Bill pass, someone with cancer-related pain of which strong opioids have failed to combat, or arthritis that standard medication isn't improving, still wouldn't be able to see their doctor to get a prescription for a drug that could help them. Because the medication they need contains more than 2 percent THC, these patients would still have to go through the Ministry of Health's arduous application process.

The New Zealand public has been calling for action on medicinal cannabis for years now, and Wellington is finally listening. But as always, the devil is in the detail, and unfortunately the detail predicts many would continue to suffer despite new regulations.

And as is currently the case, the patient is unlikely to bother, and so will continue to source product from the black market.

Patients needing medicinal cannabis products, high in THC or not, should be able to access them with a prescription from their doctor. Any further loopholes are just prolonging their suffering.

During a discussion with the chief executive of New Zealand medicinal cannabis products company NUBU Pharmaceuticals, Mark Dye told me: “It’s all about accessibility. Patients here in New Zealand should have access to pharmaceutical-grade cannabis-based products, no matter their THC content, without having to jump through a million hoops. Until this is the case, people will continue to turn to the black market".

Patients consuming black market cannabis are unlikely to be receiving all of the potential benefit. Because the product hasn't been produced in a controlled environment, it's highly unlikely to contain the correct amount of cannabinoids effective for their condition. 

Most black market cannabis has been bred to contain incredibly high levels of THC, but as the research suggests, in many cases both THC and CBD are required for optimum results.

The New Zealand public has been calling for action on medicinal cannabis for years now, and Wellington is finally listening. But as always, the devil is in the detail, and unfortunately the detail predicts many would continue to suffer despite new regulations.

I'm sure Parliament will get there eventually, but those who need medicinal cannabis have gone without for long enough. The regulations around THC-based medications needs to be reviewed now, with patient need at the forefront.

I’m not connected to the industry and haven’t even inhaled for well over 20 years; I simply think we ought to make medicinal cannabis legislation durable and complete.

THC is not the devil. Rather, available research shows, for some it is the exact opposite.

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