Medical cannabis users are offering to share legally approved marijuana products to ease the cost of prescriptions but the Ministry of Health warns they could be classed as drug dealers.
Donations of drugs and money have been offered to the family of 11-year-old Paige Gallien, who uses Sativex marijuana mouth spray to treat her seizures.
Paige is the only child in New Zealand given ministerial approval to use the controlled drug and her father, Brent Gallien, said the spray has helped her improve in "leaps and bounds" since she started using it in February.
Paige's situation has drawn publicity around the high price of Sativex - about $1000 for three small bottles - and led to renewed debate over legalising medical cannabis. The Hamilton family said they have had dozens of messages of support from strangers, offers of financial assistance as well as one offer of a supply of Sativex from a man who was prescribed the drug but no longer uses it.
"It's been quite overwhelming," Brent Gallien said. "We haven't really taken anything off anyone at this stage. We're trying to work through what's best for Paige. It has just been an amazing response from people."
Frank Ashworth, who offered to donate his remaining bottles of Sativex, said he was keen to see someone benefit from the drug.
He was given a prescription late last year to treat his multiple sclerosis but found it did not help relieve his symptoms.
"It's obviously working for Paige and it's something that could help her lead a normal life," he said. "But it's costing her a bloody arm and a leg."
The Ministry of Health advised against people sharing prescription drugs and said it could result in criminal charges.
Anyone prescribed a prescription medicine or controlled drug cannot legally sell or gift that medicine to someone else, a ministry spokesman said. "This is particularly so for controlled drugs, such as Sativex, where this would be considered to be dealing in controlled drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act, which carries significant penalties."
A person could also lose their approval for Sativex, the spokesman said.
Ashworth said the Government was out of touch on the issue and should push for subsidies on Sativex, which was too expensive for many people to access.
"I think if it has got benefits it should be available for everyone. Politicians seem to shy away from it whenever there's a mention of cannabis. They need to pull their fingers out."
Sativex has been legal in New Zealand since 2008 but has only partial approval, meaning each application has to be authorised through the health minister's office.
Ministry of Health figures show only 53 prescriptions have been issued, including for repeat patients, and no longer active users.
Gallien said Paige's supply of $1000 worth of Sativex lasted between one and three months.
The drug had already made a noticeable improvement in her quality of life, he said.
"She's basically gained a year in intelligence. It's like a fog has been lifted. She is full of energy - she's our little energiser bunny."
He said he was already looking at alternative drug treatments such as cannabis oil, which had lower THC-levels (which give the high), and could legally be granted through a special Ministry of Health provision.
"We're wanting to sit down with [the Government] and discuss how to go through it. It's a long and slow process."
Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne last week urged Gallien and others who were keen to see medical cannabis legalised to direct their calls to pharmaceutical companies.
In a statement he said: "The bottom line is that it is not the Government's place to develop, trial and bring medicines to market - that responsibility sits squarely with the pharmaceutical industry".
He added that if cannabis was sought for medicinal benefits, then it must be subject to the same rigour and testing expected of all pharmaceutical products.
Medical cannabis laws in Britain are set for review after drugs minister Norman Baker last week floated changes to allow seriously ill people to access cannabis for medical purposes.
The New South Wales Government is due to vote on the same question in a private member's bill to be tabled later this month, while political leaders in Western Australia and Tasmania have also led calls for reforms.
Gallien said he was optimistic about the international momentum around the issue. "It has given us hope. Once Australia falls then NZ hopefully will follow."
- Sunday Star Times
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