Guidelines for applying for medicinal cannabis barely touched following review

Terminally ill former union boss Helen Kelly continues to source cannabis for pain relief illegally.
CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ

Terminally ill former union boss Helen Kelly continues to source cannabis for pain relief illegally.

Terminally ill Helen Kelly says the Government has made her a "criminal" after a review of medicinal cannabis guidelines ended with little change.

More than a year ago the former Council of Trade Unions boss was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and after trying a variety of different medications she resorted to cannabis for pain relief.

Kelly continues to illegally source her own drugs after her bid for medicinal cannabis was withdrawn - the result of a "complicated" application process, which required information that was "impossible to access".

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne says he will continue to take a "robust and scientific'' approach to ...
DAVID WHITE/FAIRFAX NZ

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne says he will continue to take a "robust and scientific'' approach to cannabis-based products.

"I've been left to buy my own cancer treatment and take illegal cannabis - the whole system is stuffed."

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The guidelines for that application process have been reviewed and on Thursday Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne announced only minor changes, based on the advice of medical experts.

Kelly says Dunne's decisions around access to cannabis are impacting on her life every day.

"I'm really sick at the moment...I'm really sore and I can't find a product to take that I feel comfortable operating on during the day."

The guidelines were introduced last year after Nelson teenager, Alex Renton, successfully applied to Dunne for a cannabis product, Elixinol.

Currently the only cannabis-based product available in New Zealand that doesn't require ministerial approval from Dunne is Sativex.

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The feedback from the review was "unanimously supportive that the guidelines and process are sound," Dunne said.

His position of a "robust and scientific" approach to cannabis has not changed, which means "identifying the greatest therapeutic benefits and determining the most appropriate ratios, dosage and delivery mechanisms".

"Otherwise we are essentially flying blind and hoping for the best, an approach that flies in the face of evidence-based medicines policy.

​"It is my hope that by releasing this feedback it will go some way to balancing out the irresponsible and ill-informed messages being passed off as fact, and provide a degree of reassurance to those who are genuinely looking for respite to significant health issues," he said.

But Kelly says the ministry should be compiling a list of cannabis-based products for doctors to prescribe, other than Sativex, which Kelly says isn't right for her needs.

Renton, who suffered from "status epilepticus", a kind of prolonged seizure, died a month after receiving Elixinol.

In April Dunne approved Aceso Calm Spray, a non-pharmaceutical grade cannabis-based product, for a patient with a severe case of Tourette's Syndrome.

Dunne instructed ministry officials, in March, to undertake consultation with a range of medical specialists and the New Zealand Medical Association, to work out whether the guidelines were still "fit for purpose".

"The consistent feedback from experts in their field was that cannabis-based products should be treated no differently to other medicines - evidence-based principles should and will continue to be followed".

The specialists recommended one of the guidelines - that a patient be hospitalised while being treated with a non-pharmaceutical grade cannabis product - be removed, which Dunne has adopted.

The ministry has also made changes to the terminology used around cannabis.

Instead of "medicinal cannabis", the description has been changed to "cannabis-based products".

"The changes do not impact on the legal status of cannabis or any cannabis-based products. They have been made to provide more clarity and consistency in describing cannabis-based products, when compared to other products or substances in the area of medicines control."

 - Stuff

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