Taranaki woman wins 12-month fight to be given medicinal cannabis
A Taranaki woman with multiple sclerosis has won a year-long battle to become one of the first people in New Zealand to be allowed to ease her pain with different varieties of medicinal cannabis (MC).
Helen Old found out this week that she had got the green light to source MC from Canada after a lengthy fight to get her application before the Ministry of Health.
While the 56-year-old mother of one's mind remains sharp, more than 30 years of struggling with the disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord has left her paralysed from the neck down, with impaired speech and vision.
Her husband Peter, who has been beside her all the way, said the decision was fantastic news - although the couple now face another fight to bring the drug into the country.
"We were absolutely delighted," he said.
"It has been 12 months to get it approved and it has been a long bloody journey."
Peter said it had been an arduous process, with mountains of paper work to complete, which was made more difficult because medical professionals were divided on the benefits of MC and it was the first time someone had been granted approval to use different varieties to treat the pain.
"What Helen needs is a more potent cannabis for her to take at night and a less potent variety to take during the day because of the pain issues she has that are attributed to her MS," he said.
However after Helen, who is on a cocktail of pharmaceutical pain relief that created a wide range unwanted side effects, took part in an illegal trial the couple were instantly aware it was the right option.
"Within two days her bladder stopped spasming and she was able to have pain relief without side effects."
They experimented with different strengths to work out what would help Helen the most.
"We were able to do all these things ourselves and then sit back and say 'bloody hell, this really does work', the results were amazing."
Peter said they needed to know if the products would benefit Helen's quality of life before taking the next step.
"We needed to try it first otherwise we were wasting our time.
"If Helen had tried it and said this is useless, it's not going to work, I think we would have pulled the pin.
"It made everything easier to know we had finally got to where we needed to be and the process was going to work in our favour."
He said watching his wife's condition deteriorate over the years had been soul-destroying.
"It's the most unpleasant thing you could ever have to watch. I've seen her go from being a vibrant, beautiful, fabulous person to ending up in a wheelchair.
"It's like cancer, a person with cancer and you know they are going to die and there's not much you can do about it, you feel totally bloody useless."
While the couple, who have been supported by Shane Le Brun of the Medicinal Cannabis Association, had won the battle they had not yet won the war, Peter said.
They were now working towards getting approval to import the products into New Zealand, at their own cost.
"Now we have to deal with with the government departments to bring it in, for instance customs and police. We've got to get an import licence from the Ministry for Primary Industries."
Peter said Le Brun was working the help the couple and two other patients, who had also gained approval to use different varieties, so they could share the cost of obtaining the licence.
He said he hoped the ordeal he and Helen had been through would help open doors for the use of MC and maybe even lead to it being funded by the government.
"The process should've taken three months maximum, it shouldn't have taken any longer than than that. Helen is not a special case, she is badly disabled, she is in severe pain and this process shouldn't have been dragged out.
"People like Helen are trailblazers. In ten years' time medicinal cannabis will be readily available. You will go to your GP, he will write you a prescription, you will take it somewhere and you will get the medicinal cannabis you need."
It was not yet known how Helen would take her MC.
Peter said the couple had never considered smoking cannabis as an option to treat Helen's pain but he encouraged the government to open its eyes to the developments in MC and its use overseas.
"We don't believe that smoking marijuana does any good for anybody and it wasn't until we started investigating alternatives and found out there was medicinal cannabis that was being produced by reputable companies and being approved by governments.
"It's being kept under wraps, you don't know about it until you look for it."
He said the Australian government was growing its own cannabis and planned to process it and make it available to the public within 12 months.
"In New Zealand we've got the best growing conditions in the world, this is what I've been told. Why the hell aren't they growing it under licence and processing it here for people like Helen? The government would make money out of it, it would be self funding."
Peter said the couple hoped to receive their first shipment of MC by January and they believed Helen, who used to take eight different medications a day but has dropped to six thanks to the illegal trial she is involved in, would then be able to further reduce the amount.
"We think, once she starts on the medicinal cannabis four of those medications could be dropped, two have gone already and there could well be another two more.
"The saving alone for that per month would be the equivalent of getting the medicinal cannabis."