The study comes ahead of the government’s plans to introduce a new licenced medicinal cannabis scheme to broaden access to cannabis products for a wider range of patients – not only the terminally ill – by the end of this year1.

Dr Marta Rychert

Massey University’s Dr Marta Rychert, an expert in drug policy and public health law research, has received an Emerging Researcher First Grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to explore the types of medicinal cannabis users in New Zealand and how they ­– and health professionals – are engaging with the new medicinal cannabis scheme.

Dr Rychert says there is currently little research on medicinal cannabis users in New Zealand, with the only data we have coming from a general health survey of the New Zealand population from 2012/2013.

“This snapshot found that 41 percent of New Zealanders who used cannabis in the past 12 months said they used it for medicinal reasons. This amounts to about 175,000 people or some five percent of New Zealanders aged 15 and over,” says Dr Rychert.

“New Zealanders have been using cannabis – both legally and illegally – for medicinal purposes for many decades, but we know little about where they get their supply from, how they use it and for what medical conditions, what advice they have received from health professionals, and how the new scheme will affect their use.”

Dr Rychert’s research aims to help fill these large gaps in our understanding and critically analyse the new medicinal cannabis scheme during the first three years following its introduction. This will include looking at issues of affordability and access to medicinal cannabis under the new scheme and providing information to help with developing protocols and resources for both patients and health professionals.

HRC chief executive Professor Kath McPherson says it is essential to study the impacts of the new medicinal cannabis scheme to ensure it is working as intended, providing a regulated, safe scheme that responds to medicinal cannabis users’ needs but with important safeguards.

“Marta is in a great position to lead this research as she has a range of experience analysing drug policy reforms both in New Zealand and Europe, including with the European Union Drugs Agency, and analysing the performance of New Zealand’s law that established a regulated legal market for new psychoactive substances or ‘legal highs’.”

Dr Rychert says the planned policy change in New Zealand fits within a wider international trend towards establishing medicinal cannabis schemes, with Canada, Germany, Israel, Netherlands and more than half of the states in the US having approved the use of cannabis for medical purposes.

However, the overseas experiences with medicinal cannabis laws have not been without their problems – something she hopes New Zealand can learn from.

“There have been a number of issues overseas with medicinal cannabis schemes, including poor affordability, a lack of understanding about new regulations, a continued black-market supply, and limited engagement from health professionals who remain sceptical about the use of medicinal cannabis for certain conditions – and rightly so,” she says.

“New Zealand is a really interesting case as we are embarking on both medicinal cannabis and recreational cannabis law reform at the same time. If recreational cannabis law reform goes ahead, it could have huge implications on this medicinal cannabis scheme, including how likely it is that medicinal cannabis users engage with the prescribed cannabis channel.”

Dr Rychert’s study is one of 15 HRC Emerging Researcher First Grants worth a combined total of nearly $3.7 million announced today. These grants help the country’s brightest and best new talent establish independent health research careers in New Zealand.

1 The Ministry of Health is currently leading work to develop a scheme that will enable domestic commercial cultivation and manufacture of medicinal cannabis. The scheme has three main elements: (1) a licensing regime (2) introduction of standards for the quality of medicinal cannabis products and all stages of production, and (3) establishment of a medicinal cannabis agency.

2019 Emerging Researcher First Grants – full list

Dr Julie Bennett, University of Otago, Wellington

  • Characteristics of S. pyogenes isolated prior to rheumatic fever diagnosis
  • 36 months, $245,000

Dr Kathryn Bradbury, The University of Auckland

  • Diet and circulating lipids in relation to cardiovascular disease in New Zealand
  • 36 months, $247,000

Dr Janice Chew-Harris, University of Otago, Christchurch

  • A suPAR prognostic indicator of cardiovascular risk and outcomes
  • 36 months, $243,758

Dr Julie Choisne, The University of Auckland

  • Prediction of the form-function musculoskeletal system in paediatric population
  • 36 months, $249,999

Dr Rosie Dobson, The University of Auckland

  • Supporting mothers and babies in Lakes District
  • 36 months, $249,958

Dr Niamh Donnellan, The University of Auckland

  • Novel approach to measuring the food and activity environments for child health
  • 18 months, $225,137

Dr Fiona Graham, University of Otago, Wellington

  • Coaching caregivers of children with developmental disability: A cluster RCT
  • 36 months, $233,618

Dr Joanna Hicks, University of Waikato

  • Cysteine biosynthesis and infection, gonorrhoea’s weak link?
  • 36 months, $249,959

Dr Prasath Jayakaran, University of Otago, Dunedin

  • Sensory organisation for balance control in children with strabismus
  • 36 months, $244,828

Dr Gabriella Lindberg, University of Otago, Christchurch

  • Oxygen control in 3D-bioprinted osteochondral constructs
  • 36 months, $249,759

Dr Marta Rychert, Massey University, Auckland

  • Exploring medicinal cannabis use in New Zealand in a time of policy change
  • 36 months, $246,885

Dr Nada Signal, AUT University

  • Measuring perceived task difficulty during rehabilitation
  • 36 months, $227,452

Dr Trudy Sullivan, University of Otago, Dunedin

  • Valuing health-related quality of life in New Zealand
  • 36 months, $247,406

Dr Braden Te Ao, The University of Auckland

  • Are concussion services for mild traumatic brain injury cost effective?
  • 36 months, $246,647

Dr Ayesha Verrall, University of Otago, Wellington

  • An epigenetic marker of BCG protection from M. tuberculosis
  • 36 months, $250,000

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