Medical cannabis funding calls renewed as study reports pain relief

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Ninety-six percent of those who have used cannabis for pain said it helped them in some way. (Stock photo)

New Zealanders who use cannabis to help with chronic conditions told researchers the drug has allowed them to move away from other pain medications, including opioids, prompting new calls for drug policy changes.

A survey conducted by the University of Otago of 213 people looked at the therapeutic benefits of cannabis on people with medically diagnosed conditions such as chronic pain, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, mental health problems or reported difficulty sleeping.

In all the sample, 96% of those who took it for pain said that cannabis helped them in some way. The self-reported treatment benefit was even higher in those with sleep difficulties (97%) and people with mental health conditions, autism, ADHD, PTSD, and eating difficulties (98%).

Half of all participants said they were able to reduce or stop their prescription for pain relievers such as tramadol, pregabalin and codeine, or antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.

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If you\’ve tried everything else and nothing has worked and you\’re at your limit, then you try this and for whatever reason, you believe it works, that\’s when you say, well, I\’ll do this and not that, said lead author Dr. Geoff Noller of the Otago Medical Schools Department of Bioethics.

Two participants told researchers that pain and sleep relief literally saved their lives: I was ready to end my life sooner. I\’ve had enough, said one.

Noller stressed that his team of researchers were not advocating for people with diagnosed conditions to refuse other prescribed drugs in favor of cannabis, but rather there was a place for both and policy and funding changes should follow to allow for easier access. .

No medicinal cannabis products are being funded or subsidized, but there are indications that this could change.

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Bioethicist Dr Geoff Noller, lead author, says the high cost and strict regulations of legal medical cannabis mean we have put ourselves in a straitjacket.

Pharmac recommended rejecting a funding application for Sativex in 2015, but the application hasn\’t changed since then. However, Hughes confirmed that it was still an active application and new evidence could still be considered.

Sativex costs between $1,100 and $1,400 a month, compared with an ounce of cannabis costing $300 to $450, Noller said.

The high cost and strict regulations of legal medical cannabis have meant that we have put ourselves into something of a straitjacket, Noller said.

Last August, a pharmaceutical committee considered a treatment with cannabidiol (Epidyolex) for Dravet syndrome, a specific epilepsy disorder. This has been recommended with the highest priority, so the next step is to prioritize this as an option for investment, said Pharmac\’s chief medical officer Dr David Hughes.

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Southern Medicinal executive director Greg Marshall says his team hopes to reduce the price of medical cannabis to make it more affordable. (Video first released June 2022)

To date, nine people have been supplied with medicinal cannabis funded under criteria of exceptional clinical circumstances, Hughes said.

The chairman of General Practice NZ, Dr. Bryan Betty, said there is little doubt that individuals have experienced benefits from medical cannabis, but solid long-term data on its efficacy and safety are lacking.

There is a degree of uncertainty in this… so prescribers make individual decisions.

That\’s not to say strong evidence won\’t emerge, but at the time there wasn\’t in the form of a robust double-blind study, Betty said.

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Pharmac\’s chief medical officer, Dr David Hughes, says there is a route to funding medicinal cannabis on a case-by-case basis.

This was in line with existing medical advice for New Zealand prescribers from the independent Best Practice Advocacy Center (bpac NZ), which states that there is low-quality evidence for pain improvement in people with chronic pain and no evidence that medical cannabis reduce opioid use in people with chronic pain.

The center acknowledges the evidence that cannabis can reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, the severity of seizures and the symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS).

Researchers from the universities of Victoria and Auckland also worked on the study, published in the journal Drugs, Habits and Social Policy.

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The Best Practice Advocacy Center (bpac NZ) says there is low quality evidence for pain improvement in people with chronic pain. (stock photo)

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