Who’s using medicinal cannabis in New Zealand? Survey reveals trends and habits

by | Feb 17, 2021

Medicinal cannabis users in New Zealand “overwhelmingly” believe it helps to improve their symptoms, according to a survey of more than 3000 people.

The New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA) study also reveals that people from all walks of life are using cannabis medicinally for a wide range of health conditions and symptoms.

In this article, we will provide an overview of the survey results to paint a picture of who’s using medicinal cannabis in New Zealand and how they’re using it.

If you’re thinking of using medicinal cannabis, these findings may help you to realise you’re not alone.

There are thousands of New Zealanders who are using cannabis medicinally across the country, and almost all of them believe it’s helping to improve their quality of life.

 

About the survey

The survey was conducted by the NZMA, which represents the collective needs of doctors in New Zealand.

Its aim was to “explore patterns of medicinal cannabis use” prior to the implementation of the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme, which came into effect in April 2020.

The anonymous online survey was promoted via Facebook over three months from May to August 2019. The link to the survey was also shared in Facebook groups dedicated to medicinal cannabis use.

It is important to note that almost all of the 3634 participants were accessing cannabis without a prescription, so there’s no way of knowing the blend, dose, or quality of the cannabis they were consuming.

While this survey has some clear limitations, it nonetheless provides an interesting snapshot of medicinal cannabis trends, habits and attitudes in New Zealand.

 

Survey highlights

Who is using medicinal cannabis in New Zealand?

The survey found that people using cannabis medicinally in New Zealand come from all walks and stages of life.

Participants had used medicinal cannabis for a mean of five years and most used it daily.

Close to half (47.2%) were using cannabis recreationally at the time they started using it for medical reasons. However, 14.5% of people had never used cannabis recreationally.

Overview:

  • Median age was 38 years
  • 50% of respondents were female
  • 75.9% European, 17.8% Māori
  • 66.2% have some level of tertiary education
  • 56.2% were working full- or part-time
  • 9.3% were students
  • 17.3% were on a sickness benefit
  • 17.1% earned more than $100,000 a year

 

What are people using medicinal cannabis for?

People reported using cannabis medicinally for more than 50 different health conditions, including pain, mental health, neurological conditions, cancer, and sleep disorders.

Participants were asked to select all of the conditions that were relevant to them. Below we’ve listed the three top conditions for each subsection.

Overview:

  • Pain: 80.9% (back pain, headaches, migraines)
  • Sleep: 65.9% (insomnia, SRMDs, parasomnias)
  • Mental health and substance use: 64% (anxiety, depression, PTSD)
  • Gastrointestinal conditions: 17.1% (IBS, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis)
  • Neurological conditions: 12.2% (epilepsy/seizures, autism, multiple sclerosis)
  • Cancers: 6.7% (skin, gastrointestinal, breast)
  • Other conditions: 29.8% (skin, auto-immune, gynaecological)

 

Getting a medicinal cannabis prescription

Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63.5%) had discussed their use of cannabis for medicinal reasons with a health provider, most commonly their GP.

Only 14.1% had requested a prescription for medicinal cannabis in the past year, and 4.9% had been prescribed a medicinal cannabis product.

However, around two-thirds of participants said they would “likely” or “very likely” try to access medicinal cannabis legally under the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme.

The main reasons why people hadn’t asked for prescription were:

  • I think my health provider wouldn’t prescribe: 40.8%
  • Process too bureaucratic: 39.8%
  • The current products are not affordable: 36.2%
  • Because I was scared of being judged: 34%

If you would like some help with getting a medicinal cannabis prescription in New Zealand, read our patient’s guide here.

 

How are people consuming medicinal cannabis?

Most participants chose to smoke cannabis, or consume it orally as a tincture or oil.

The consumption method is strongly influenced by the fact that so few people had received a medicinal cannabis prescription.

As more products are approved under the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme, patients will have more choice as to how they consume cannabis in New Zealand.

It’s worth noting here that Ora Pharm supports the government’s Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 target.

 

How effective is medicinal cannabis?

Participants reported cannabis to be a highly effective medicine.

They were asked to rate perceived effectiveness based on how their symptoms had changed since using cannabis medicinally.

More than 90% of participants reported some level of improvement across almost all symptoms, with the sole exception of ‘breathing problem’.

“Participants overwhelmingly believed their symptoms had improved since starting to use cannabis for medicinal reasons.”

 

People with pain, sleep problems, anxiety, headache, muscle spasm, nausea/vomiting, seizures, agitation and more reported particularly high rates of improvement.

 

Cannabis and other medicines

Almost all (89%) of participants said they used pharmaceutical medications to treat their health conditions in addition to using cannabis.

The most common medicines included NSAIDs (ibuprofen), paracetamol, opioids, antidepressants, and benzodiazepines.

Many people reported substituting pharmaceutical medicines, particularly opioids, with cannabis.

“95% of those who used opioid medications reported reducing their opioid dose since using medicinal cannabis, including 53% who stopped opioid treatment completely.”

 

New Zealand’s changing cannabis landscape

The findings of this survey provide a glimpse of the medicinal cannabis landscape in New Zealand.

You might even see yourself reflected in the data.

Your age group, health condition, or concerns about talking to your doctor about medicinal cannabis.

Since the survey was done, a lot has changed in New Zealand.

The Medicinal Cannabis Scheme has come into effect.

Cannabis-based medicines are being grown and developed in New Zealand to meet high quality and safety standards set by the Ministry of Health.

There is much more awareness and acceptance of medicinal cannabis as a viable medicine.

All of this should result in more accessible, affordable and effective medicinal cannabis for the patients who need it.

The next survey of medicinal cannabis users in New Zealand could look very different indeed.

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