October 6, 2008

Cannabis Spray Use May Be Made Legal

By CHALMERS, Anna

CANNABIS products could soon be used legally for medical purposes, after an application by a leading drug company to market a liquid version for pain relief.

Medsafe is considering whether to allow the marketing and sale of cannabis spray, Sativex, after an application from its British maker.

It comes as the Government faces increasing pressure from some patients and scientists to legalise cannabis use to alleviate chronic pain for accident victims and some sufferers of multiple sclerosis and cancer.

Cannabis is a class C drug and cannabis preparations are class B drugs, but the Medicines Act allows the drug to be used with ministerial approval.

The Health Ministry said approval to use Sativex had been granted for three patients, and a further application was pending.

The spray, which is administered under the tongue, was developed by British firm GW Pharmaceuticals for multiple sclerosis patients and has been legal in Canada since 2005.

Rose Wall, the ministry's quality and safety manager, said the Medsafe application to market Sativex as a medicine was still being considered.

In a briefing paper to former health minister Pete Hodgson, issued by the ministry last year, officials said there was "sufficient evidence of safety and efficacy of cannabis in some medical conditions" to support consideration of compassionate, controlled use.

A group of medicinal cannabis users presented a petition with 3000 signatures to the health select committee in July, urging law reform for medical purposes.

Billy McKee, who appeared before the committee and is the director of GreenCross, a patients' medicinal cannabis support group, said patients who used cannabis medicinally faced many risks in buying it on the black market.

He smoked cannabis to control chronic nerve pain dating from car crash injuries sustained 15 years ago and would welcome Sativex if he could "easily access and afford it".

But he believed users could face costs of $150 to $300 weekly as it was not subsidised by Pharmac.

Mr McKee said users faced obstacles growing the drug, including arrest. His home had been burgled 20 times by thieves trying to remove plants.

Multiple Sclerosis Society national director Graham Billings said the agency supported the use of Sativex in New Zealand. "But until it's been made legal we can't really comment."

Otago University Pharmacology professor Paul Smith said the drug, which contained two cannabis strands -- THC and cannabidiol -- would not work for all chronic pain sufferers but initial results in multiple sclerosis patients showed about 30 per cent success, including reducing symptoms in some patients.

He believed the evidence was compelling and the drug should be allowed as, unlike cannabis plant and oil, it did not have to be smoked.

"The fact that it happens to be cannabis, from a pharmacologist point of view, is irrelevant."

GW Pharmaceuticals could not be contacted yesterday. In its application to Medsafe it says that in therapeutic doses, Sativex may produce side-effects "interpreted as a euphoria or cannabis- like high".

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