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Patients seeking medical cannabis for pain relief will no longer need approval from a minister, the Government has confirmed.
As of today, the responsibility for approving applications has been delegated to the Ministry of Health.
Medicinal cannabis is used to treat a range of conditions such as chronic pain, terminal cancer, Tourette's and child epilepsy. Patients say it reduces the severity of their symptoms.
Just two pharmaceutical grade cannabis products, Sativex and Tilray, are available in New Zealand. Neither are funded by Pharmac, and cost users between $700 and $1300 a month.
Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne announced the policy change this morning following a review of the approval process.
Yesterday, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman hinted that the approvals process could be delegated to specialists but today Mr Dunne said that responsibility would instead lie with the ministry.
Doctors will apply to the ministry for approval if a patient requests access to cannabis-based medical products.
As part of the policy change, Mr Dunne also planned to create a list of internationally available, pharmaceutical grade cannabis-based products "to prodive additional clarity on the issue".
"Last week I wrote to the Director-General of Health, advising him that as of 8 February 2017, applications from specialists to the Ministry to prescribe non-pharmaceutical, cannabis-based products will no longer need Ministerial approval. Approval for pharmaceutical-grade cannabis products was similarly delegated some years ago," he said.
"As I stated in my delegation letter to the director-general, when applications first began to be received it was my view that the final decision appropriately lay at Ministerial level, rather than exposing officials to risk, given the complicated and contentious nature of the issue - that is to say the buck stopped with me.
"I have approved every application that has come before me with a positive recommendation - within a matter of minutes once the application came across my desk.
"Since the first application was approved, guidelines have been developed, consulted on and simplified to allow specialists who are interested in accessing such products for their patients a clear, straight-forward and unobstructed pathway to acquiring the appropriate products.
"I am satisfied that with the development of these guidelines, and with a number of successful applications having been subsequently completed, any risk associated with the early processes has largely abated and I have confidence in the Ministry of Health to handle the process in its entirety from now on."
Mr Dunne said he intended to write to organisations representing doctors and pharmacies to outline his expectation that they considered the prescribing of cannabis-based products "with an open mind".
Some pro-cannabis groups have expressed concerns that most doctors were being too conservative in their consideration of patients' requests for medical cannabis.
The Government has come under pressure to relax the rules around medical cannabis after several high-profile cases drew national attention to the issue.
Former trade union boss Helen Kelly campaigned to be able to use cannabis legally for pain relief before her death in October.
And Rose Renton, mother of the first person to get approval to use medicinal cannabis in New Zealand, presented a 17,000-signature petition in favour of legalisation to Parliament late last year.
Renton's son, Alex, was given approval to use medicinal cannabis to treat seizures before his death last July.