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How to get a medicinal cannabis prescription in New Zealand: A step-by-step guide for patients

by | Oct 26, 2020

You can access medicinal cannabis legally in New Zealand with a prescription from a doctor.

The Medicinal Cannabis Scheme, which came into effect in April 2020, makes it easier for doctors to prescribe medicinal cannabis products and improves access for patients.

Despite cannabis being a legal medicine, patients and caregivers continue to face barriers to access and resistance from doctors.

Research by the New Zealand Medical Journal indicated that 79% of General Practitioners in New Zealand have concerns about prescribing medical cannabis.

However, government data shows that prescriptions are on the rise in New Zealand and patients are seeking medicinal cannabis for a wide range of health conditions.

In the past year, medicinal cannabis was most commonly prescribed for pain, mental health issues, insomnia, and neurological and skin conditions.

While getting a prescription for medical cannabis might feel like an uphill battle for some, Ora Pharm wants to help make it as easy as possible.

This guide to getting a medicinal cannabis prescription in New Zealand is designed to support patients and caregivers through this process.


Reasons for seeking a medical cannabis prescription

There are many reasons why you may want to ask your doctor for a medicinal cannabis prescription.

  • You may have experienced unpleasant side effects from commonly prescribed pharmaceutical drugs or found them to be ineffective.
  • You may have read research that suggests medicinal cannabis could help manage your health condition or symptoms.
  • You may have used cannabis medicinally in the past and want to access it legally through the health system.
  • You may simply prefer to use natural, plant-based healthcare products.

These are all perfectly valid reasons.

If you feel that medicinal cannabis has potential to support your health and improve your quality of life, then you have every right to ask your doctor for a prescription.


Your guide to getting a medicinal cannabis prescription in New Zealand


1. Do your research

It’s important to do your homework on medical cannabis before discussing it with your doctor.

What scientific evidence is there for using it as treatment for your health condition or symptoms?

Firstly, it helps you to make evidence-based decisions about your healthcare and that of your loved ones.

Secondly, it will increase your chances of convincing your doctor that medicinal cannabis is right for you.

Medicinal cannabis and its best-known therapeutic compounds – CBD and THC – are new medicines in New Zealand and not all doctors will be up-to-speed with the latest research.

Start with a simple Google search for research related to your health condition and symptoms.

Just be aware that news articles and blog posts don’t cut it as research. You’ll need to find the original sources of information – scientific studies, clinical trials and research papers.

Unfortunately, these can be difficult to understand and sometimes cost money to access.

If you want easy access to reliable research, you can register for Ora Support, Ora Pharm’s medicinal cannabis education hub for patients and caregivers.

There you can search for research relevant to your health condition and symptoms and access scientific evidence for medicinal cannabis in simple language.


2. Understand the limitations

How to get a medicinal cannabis prescription in New Zealand

Just because medicinal cannabis is legal in New Zealand doesn’t mean that doctors can prescribe you any product you want.

Doctors are able to prescribe cannabidiol (CBD) for any condition because it’s not considered a “controlled drug”.

However, doctors face restrictions when it comes to medicinal cannabis products containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) because it’s a “controlled” substance.

THC is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis that produces the “high” feeling, but it’s been found to have many therapeutic benefits.

There are also restrictions around CBD products to be aware of.

The Ministry of Health states that prescriptions for medicinal cannabis products must not be for:

  • A product in a form intended for smoking
  • A product meeting the definition of ‘food’ under the Food Act 2014
  • A product in a sterile dosage form (eg. eye drops)

The law also limits CBD prescriptions to a three-month supply and products containing THC to a one-month supply.

Approved medicinal cannabis products

Doctors are only able to prescribe products containing THC that have been “approved” under the Medicines Act.

Currently, doctors can only prescribe one approved THC-based product, Sativex™ Oral Spray.

While it was originally only approved for treating multiple sclerosis, doctors can now prescribe it for “off-label” use for patients in their care “where there is a clinical need”.

That means patients can seek a prescription for off-label THC for any health condition or symptom.

Unapproved medicinal cannabis products

Doctors can prescribe unapproved medicinal cannabis products only if:

– The Medicinal Cannabis agency has verified the product meets the minimum quality standard, or
– You get the approval of the Minister of Health following an application from a relevant medical specialist or the Chief Medical Officer of a District Health Board.

This is a major barrier for patients, however it’s expected that more products will be approved under the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme in the near future.


3. Email your intentions

Depending on your relationship with your doctor, it may help to email them ahead of your appointment.

You can tell them that you’ve been researching medical cannabis as a potential treatment for your health condition and that you’re interested in talking with them about getting a prescription.

Giving your doctor a heads-up may prompt them to do some research of their own.

At the very least, they will be aware of your intentions for the appointment and, hopefully, more open to your request.


4. Book a double appointment

If this is your first time seeking a medicinal cannabis prescription, it may be a good idea to book a “double appointment”.

A standard doctor’s appointment is only 15 minutes, which may not be long enough to present your research and discuss your options.

A double appointment will cost more, but it will allow for enough time for both of you to make an informed decision about your healthcare.


5. Make your case

It’s a good idea to print off the research to support your request for a medicinal cannabis prescription and bring it with you to your appointment.

You want to be prepared. But be careful not to make it seem like it’s “you vs them”.

Doctors are highly-educated healthcare professionals and may not respond well to an adversarial approach.

Treat the appointment as an open-minded discussion where you present your reasons for wanting to use medical cannabis and listen to your doctor’s opinion.

The patient-doctor relationship should be collaborative and have your best interests at heart.

If you present a strong case, have research to support your arguments, and your doctor is able to prescribe suitable products, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get a medicinal cannabis prescription.

What if your doctor won’t prescribe medicinal cannabis?

Medicinal cannabis is not suitable for all health conditions and there may be valid reasons for a doctor not to prescribe it.

But if you feel like you’re not getting the support you need from your doctor, you’re entitled to seek a second opinion.

You may want to consult a specialist, make an appointment with another GP, or seek out a doctor who is more open to prescribing medicinal cannabis.


Take charge of your health

It can be daunting to approach your doctor about getting a medical cannabis prescription.

It’s a relatively new medicine and there’s still a stigma around cannabis that’s hard to shake.

But you’re well within your rights to ask for treatment that you think will improve your health and quality of life.

Prescriptions for medicinal cannabis are being written by doctors every day in New Zealand.

More people are seeking to use cannabis for its potential therapeutic benefits.

A good doctor will seek to understand your reasons for wanting to use medical cannabis and support you to take charge of your health.

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