Commissioned by the country’s largest licensed medicinal cannabis company, Helius Therapeutics, the poll asked interviewees whether they will try accessing medicinal cannabis products once they become more widely and legally available next year.

Fourteen percent of respondents (431,900) answered ‘definitely’, with 34% overall (1,058,900) answering ‘definitely’, ‘most likely’, or ‘somewhat likely’.

“The survey results reaffirm New Zealanders’ strong desire for medicinal cannabis to be made widely accessible for the hundreds of thousands of patients who stand to benefit from its therapeutic potential,” says Executive Director Paul Manning.

“It also reinforces the importance of an effective Medicinal Cannabis Scheme that enables healthcare professionals to meet patients’ needs and expectations.”

Medicinal cannabis won strong cross-party political support last year and regulators are now tasked with developing the Scheme by mid-December, which will deliver the required regulations and framework for access.

In partnership with medical cannabis training organisation, The Academy of Medical Cannabis, Helius has announced the first national, accredited training programme on medicinal cannabis for New Zealand doctors, to take place in July. The masterclass will be presented by medical cannabis expert, British neurologist Professor Michael Barnes.

“We know that healthcare professionals require more information before prescribing medicinal cannabis to patients, so we’ve got a lot of work to do,” says Mr Manning.

A recent survey of New Zealand healthcare professionals, commissioned by Helius earlier this year, showed growing requests for medicinal cannabis products from patients.

“We believe every New Zealander has a natural right to a pain-free existence,” says Mr Manning. “At the end of the day, well-informed doctors will be critical to ensuring thousands of patients here gain sound and sensible access to medicinal cannabis.”

Consultant Psychiatrist and Addiction Specialist Dr Sam McBride is uncomfortable with the language used by Helius, saying it mirrors language used in the past to promote opioids as a panacea to get rid of pain “and should be similarly viewed as a cynical marketing ploy”.

“The teachings around the management of pain increasingly recognise the need to focus on improved functional outcome and managing pain,” he says.

While Dr McBride acknowledges there’s a lot of public interest in medicinal cannabis, driven by positive publicity and a suspicion of pharmaceuticals, he believes there is poor understanding of the issues in New Zealand.

“The debate is clouded by a lack of clarity around what we’re talking about,” he says. “Medicinal cannabis has been used to describe products ranging from regulated pharmaceuticals to home-grown supplies.”

He believes cannabis as medicine has been driven by consumers and industry, rather than by doctors.  “Evidence on the benefits of medicinal cannabis to date is limited and not that compelling, which may in part be why there has been limited interest from doctors.

“Which isn’t to say there aren’t going to be therapeutic opportunities, but at the moment the evidence is out of proportion to the publicity.”

Dr McBride is also concerned the promotion of medicinal cannabis has paid little attention to the potential dangers. “Cannabinoids haven’t been associated with overdose in the way opioids have, and appear well tolerated, but that doesn’t mean there are no risks. These might include impaired cognition or mental health and issues related to addiction.”

He would like to see a more informed, balanced debate on the issue, and colleges, such as the New Zealand Pain Society and The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, taking an increased role in the education of doctors rather than companies with a commercial interest in the field.

“We need doctors to take an increased role here and ensure that the debate is driven by evidence rather than profit.”

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