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NZ: Medical cannabis regulations disguise solid progress

The cannabis industry is going strong in New Zealand. Yet, such progress is hidden behind a shroud of regulations that limit local producers’ freedom to share the significant progress that the sector has been making. During MedCan 2022, Health Minister Andrew Little acknowledged that, and said that the work to build a world-class cannabis export industry is well underway. This is a very crucial aspect of the NZ industry, considering the good marketing image that the country has, together with the renowned quality of their agricultural products.

Mr. Little also pointed out that, currently, there are 39 licenses active in NZ, covering cultivation, and manufacture. Three companies got licenses to locally manufacture medical cannabis products as well as CBD products, which “cost less than imported products,” he observed.

In fact, according to industry commentators in New Zealand, the CBD oil products launched by Auckland-based Helius Therapeutics last year are proving to be a lot cheaper for Kiwi patients than comparable products by Canada-based Tilray.

Yet, a report published in February showed that the majority of New Zealanders using medical cannabis are accessing it illegally. The New Zealand Drug Foundation found that only 6% of medical cannabis users obtained it through a doctor’s prescription, in 2020. However, over the past two years, the industry has been making huge steps ahead. For instance, every GP is now allowed to prescribe medical cannabis. Even though many of them are genuinely curious to get more educated on this, this is still a rather new space for them. Indeed, a Massey University study stated that “there is a need for further investment in general practitioner information and training to improve confidence in prescribing cannabis products.”

But the real issue hampering the perception of the successes of the NZ cannabis industry has to be found in the very same industry regulation. “Manufacturers like us are restricted about what we can say,” observed Carmen Doran, CEO at Helius Therapeutics. “In short, Section 29 of the Medicines Act prohibits us from advertising medical cannabis, let alone publicly talking about our products, or even clarifying their availability. We continue to read news reports about patients’ inability to afford expensive overseas products, yet we can’t meaningfully respond with positive local developments that are now changing the landscape and improving patient equity.”

Carmen Doran, CEO of Helius Therapeutics 

It's not only a matter of openly telling how things are going in the industry, but it’s also a matter of communicating the impact that this can have on the NZ economy. “Our product standards are among the highest internationally, our country’s marketing image is strong, and our R&D is succeeding in delivering innovative products that will ensure NZ a big competitive edge,” Carmen continued. “While statutory silence hangs over many of us, it’s important for the public to know that our country’s newest sector is now making a real difference for both NZ patients and the economy, with 2022 set to deliver even more wins on the ground.”

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