In December 2018, New Zealand legalized medical cannabis. In 2019, they created the Medical Cannabis Agency, and what it has called the Medical Cannabis Scheme. In a twist the country voted down recreational adult use a year later. So now, in 2021, where does the Medical Cannabis Scheme stand in this island nation?
Applications for licensing opened up last year (mid pandemic), and several major companies have already landed one under the controlled drugs legislation. However, as with many highly regulated, medically minded programs getting underway around the world, progress is slow.
As one headline put it, “Tens of millions of dollars… still no local medicinal cannabis industry. What’s gone wrong?” With the government focused on maintaining strict pharmaceutical and quality standards, it’s been difficult and expensive for local producers to get through licensing.
Focus on Consistent Quality Standards
Like several European countries, New Zealand has decided to adopt Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) standards for its medical cannabis program. These international standards cover all areas of cultivation and production, including employee protocols, safety standards, ingredient quality, and more.
By incorporating GMP guidelines into medical cannabis production, New Zealand hopes to ensure all cannabis consistently meets minimum quality standards.
Unfortunately, cannabis-touching manufacturers in New Zealand must still send these samples overseas for testing. There are currently no peer-reviewed testing facilities on either island. Shipping cannabis internationally has never been easy, but the pandemic has only served to exacerbate the issue.
The country’s extensive quality standards mean Kiwis only have access to a handful of imported cannabis products (Tilray is one example). Furthermore, a handful of local initiatives haven’t yet received their Medsafe approval—one of the many expensive yet federally necessary steps put in place to ensure product quality.
As Mitch Cuevas from Equalis stated to Stuff, “I don’t think anyone anticipated that it would be quite this hard, least of all Medsafe. They’ve done the best they can (but) even by their own admission, they did not expect it to be so difficult.”
What Does Access Look Like for Kiwis?
New Zealand legalized medical cannabis for palliative care in 20218, but in the years since, more conditions and better access have improved the initial legislation. Nobody would claim there has been an avalanche of patients approved within the current program — only 1,842 as of July 2020 — but momentum is building.
All medical cannabis (including CBD-based products) must legally come from pharmacies and only for patients with prescriptions from doctors. In addition, smoking as a means of consumption remains strictly prohibited. Products with a pharmaceutical familiarity like pills, oils, and creams are the focus.
Additionally, vaporizing medical cannabis is an approved method of ingestion. As the Medical Cannabis Agency indicates, “Your doctor may prescribe a medicinal cannabis product to you in a form that can be administered through a medical vaporizer.”
As per the current legislation, not all vaporizers are legal. For example, street-level or recreational-style vape pens are still prohibited. Under the current program, “a vaporiser can be imported and sold only if it has been approved as a medical device by an overseas regulator. This ensures the vaporiser will be a safe method for administering medicinal cannabis.”
With RYAH’s designation as a medical device in Canada, it was a smooth transition into the New Zealand medical cannabis marketplace. RYAH signed an agreement with Medical Kiwi, the first South Island company to receive a cultivation license by the minister of health.
RYAH’s suite of connected IoT devices and cloud-based data analytics will help patients and physicians control and monitor Medical Kiwi’s cultivated medical cannabis formulations for effectiveness, dose size, and treatment program.
The Path to a Full Medical Rollout
Like Germany and France before it, New Zealand is taking a cautious path to medical cannabis access. Under the pharmaceutical approach, patients are guaranteed quality-controlled medicinal products from reliable, trustworthy sources — at least that’s the goal.
Still, there are a few challenges left to get through before Kiwis can access medical cannabis on a broader scale. Foremost is price. The imported products, largely from Canada, are expensive.
A month of cannabis prescriptions can run upwards of $700 USD. Even CBD, also from Canada, can cost more than $400 USD. Few patients will be able to afford these medicines on an ongoing basis.
New Zealanders are all waiting for local cannabis to come online in the hopes that it will reduce the current astronomical prices. Local cultivation, lower prices, and expanding product options will help more Kiwis access this valuable resource and finally fulfill the mandate of the Medical Cannabis Scheme “to improve access to quality medicinal cannabis products for patients.”