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Image: Tina Tiller

BusinessJune 30, 2022

You can get actual weed from the doctor now

Image: Tina Tiller

Legal, smokable cannabis flower – aka weed – is now available to be prescribed by New Zealand doctors. So why don’t more people know about it?

Nervous, fidgety, a little clammy. That’s how I feel as I unlock my car and open the door, then look around to see if anyone’s watching. I’ve just emerged from a doctor’s clinic carrying a plastic pottle with a childproof lid and a sealed tinfoil cover. It’s full of weed. The prescription note includes my name, the contents, and instructions for ingestion. 

I close the car door and rip off the lid. A sickly sweet scent similar to a hoppy beer hits my nose then fills the car. Inside the pottle is 10 grams of dried Australian cannabis flower, a brand called Solace that comes with a THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) level of 20%. Ten grams is about a handful of large floral cannabis buds, ready to be rolled and smoked, or vaped, if that’s what I want to do with them. 

Ten grams of weed, in my hands, in my car (Photo: Chris Schulz)

Previously, my only access to weed was at a rundown house off Dominion Road, where I’d knock three times on the door, hand over $25 and receive a thin tinfoil package. But there’s a lot more weed in this pottle than in a traditional tinny (which the cost reflects). More than enough to get me high. More than enough to have an awkward conversation with a police officer if I was to be pulled over, too.

But this weed wasn’t purchased on the street. It was prescribed to me by an Auckland doctor, one I visited on a break from work last Thursday, for pain management and sleep reasons.

Weed – not the CBD oil that has been available since 2017, or the THC drops since 2021, but smokable, dried cannabis flower – is now verified for prescription use in New Zealand and available to anyone who suffers from pain, anxiety, sleep disorders or anything else a doctor deems treatable with the use of THC. 

Yes, this is for real. And if you’re anything like me, you probably have some questions. 

Mark Hotu set up his Ponsonby practice Green Doctors three years ago. Sick of prescribing addictive painkillers to patients, the GP had been researching medicinal cannabis and liked what he saw. So he opened his clinic in 2018 after the Ministry of Health gave CBD oil the okay. At the start it was slow. “It was maybe five patients a week,” he says. Now, it’s around 70, the number increasing when THC drops became available in 2021. “The profile of cannabis has certainly gone up since then.”

The whole time, Hotu says he and other green-minded dispensaries – Auckland’s Cannabis Care and Cannabis Clinic, along with similar practices in Northland and Canterbury – have been “screaming out” for prescription use of cannabis flower to be verified. ‘The government regulations have been so strict,” says Hotu. Slowing things down was the 2020 referendum, in which Aotearoa narrowly voted against the legalisation of recreational cannabis 51%-49%. “It’s been three years of hard slog.”

Earlier this year, something changed. The Ministry of Health quietly approved doctors like Hotu to begin prescribing cannabis flower to patients who might benefit, were willing to try it and could afford it. The cannabis is imported from Australia by local company Nubu Pharmaceuticals. Like THC oil, the flower offers patients a high, delivering different therapeutic benefits to CBD oil, like pain management and improved sleep. “It’s really exciting,” says Hotu.

He’s been able to prescribe three different strains for just under two months, and three more are becoming available this week. So far, the news has flown largely under the radar. Just one NZ Herald story has been written, about a grandmother who became the first to try legal cannabis flower. Patients aren’t swamping Hotu’s practice demanding it, because they don’t know they can get it. Even the Wikipedia page for Cannabis in New Zealand hasn’t been updated.

Prescriptions tell patients to turn cannabis flower into a tea (Photo: Chris Schulz)

That’s because Aotearoa doctors aren’t able to promote its availability. Because of restrictions on verified but unapproved products under the Medicine Act 1981, Hotu can’t put photos of the products he’s offering on his site, or call them by their retail names. “We’re not allowed to advertise,” says Hotu. “I can’t go on the radio or put a billboard up.”

The rules are so strict that Nubu Pharmaceuticals said it was prohibited from discussing its own products. “I would love to talk to The Spinoff about the history-making successes the team at Nubu have achieved over the last few months, but unfortunately due to the rules that govern Section 29 of the Medicines Act, I cannot,” founder Mark Dye said via email.

Instead, Hotu is telling patients one at a time as they come into his office. Usually, they’re after the drops, because that’s all they thought they could get. Now, Hotu patiently informs them that he has a lockable fridge bolted to his floor full of Australian weed with names like Mariposa, Solace and Rocky, all with varying levels of THC. They can, like me, pay for their weed and take it home on the spot. When they run out, they can fill prescriptions online and have cannabis couriered to them.

Once it’s in your hands, the Ministry of Health doesn’t recommend you smoke the stuff. “Use of this product by inhalation would present an increased risk to patients due to the levels of microbial contamination in the product,” it said in a statement provided to The Spinoff. “The product has only been verified for use as a tea.”

Yes, tea, in which dried cannabis leaf is steeped in hot water and then consumed, which possibly no one in New Zealand has ever done up until this moment. Hotu agrees the notion is absurd. “The reality is that probably most people won’t do that,” he says.

Anti-drug groups have been surprisingly quiet about this low-key but significant change. Say Nope to Dope, a collective of groups and individuals opposed to recreational weed use, seemed like the most obvious contender to have something to say, but didn’t respond to requests for comment before deadline.

Instead, I asked Kali Mercier, NZ Drug Foundation’s policy director, who says she and the foundation are all for it. “We support easier access to high-quality medicinal cannabis in a variety of forms,” she says. “Patients have different preferences. For some, they notice a better health impact from using the whole flower.”

Unprompted, she even offers advice for those using it. “We know it is likely that some people will smoke or vaporise it,” she says. “From our perspective, vaporising is preferable to smoking as it’s a less harmful way to consume.” Hotu agrees some patients can’t use drops, and says most would prefer to smoke it because it’s what they know.

So what would happen if the police pulled me over and found my prescription weed? An answer was hard to find. An NZ Police media spokesperson referred my questions to the Ministry of Health. The Ministry of Health said it couldn’t comment but hoped a “commonsense” approach would apply.

When I went back to NZ Police, I was sent a link to the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Regulations 2019 document. Despite searching through it thoroughly, I couldn’t find anything that advised patients about what to do when questioned by police about their prescription weed.

Hotu’s advice is to take a photo of the label, and keep that on your phone. As long as you’ve got that, you can prove you have a prescription. As for travelling overseas, he advises caution. Australia is fine, other countries are more problematic. “It’s really risky taking anything into other countries,” he says. “I wouldn’t even think about it unless you want to end up in jail awaiting trial.”

“Have you used cannabis before?” Now, it’s Hotu’s turn to ask the questions. “Have you ever experienced psychosis? Have you had side effects from using cannabis in the past?”

This is what he asks every patient who comes through his doors. He’s trying to – ahem – weed out any fakers. Even he admits it can be hard to tell. “If someone comes in and says, ‘Look, doc, I’ve been under a lot of stress and I’m just not sleeping,’ how do I know whether they’re malingering or not? I have to take their word for it.”

I tell him about my shoulder injury, when a March ocean swim ended with a torn muscle, causing excruciating nerve pain down my right arm. For weeks afterwards, I couldn’t sleep more than a couple of hours a night. Three months on, it’s getting better, but it’s still an issue. Other doctors I’ve seen offered me prescription painkillers, and said recovery could take six months or longer.

Hotu listens to my story, shakes his head and says: “The amount of crap that I, as a GP, prescribed for sleep.” He’s talking about drugs like benzodiazepines, Zopiclone and lorazepam, the sedatives many doctors prescribe to treat sleep disorders. “Now,” he says, “we have another option.”

He talks me through the options he has available in his clinic, first the drops, then the cannabis flower. “Whether you inhale it or take it orally, the addiction potential is significantly less,” he says of any potential side effects. “You can’t die from an overdose of weed, but you can die from an overdose of lorazepam. Tell me which one’s worse.”

The three products available to Mark Hotu’s patients, which, once prescribed, can be couriered to them.

Hotu believes the price would put off anyone from faking an injury or a sleep disorder. He knows the weed he’s offering costs far more than it might on the street. Of the three strains he’s able to provide on the day I meet with him, prices range between $289 to $319 for 10 grams. (Three more strains should be available this week, and one of those, Kikuya, is approved for inhalation via a vaporiser.)

The difference, though, is that the weed Hotu’s prescribing has been through rigorous testing. He can tell you exactly what’s in it, what the THC levels are, and what my reaction to it might be. You can’t do that with weed bought on the street. Hotu believes the price will come down as competition arrives, and when New Zealand products are verified for use.

After the consult, Hotu goes to his safe, a locked fridge bolted to the floor. He removes a plastic pottle marked Solace and sticks my prescription over it. I head to the counter to pay. The cost? $319.

Afterwards, I return nervously to my car and put my prescription weed inside the glove box. I am happy to report I did not get pulled over, and was not forced to have an awkward conversation with the police.

As for what I did with the weed once I got home, I’ll have to plead patient-doctor confidentiality on that one. But I can confirm that weed steeped in hot water and drunk as a tea tastes like fresh cut grass, didn’t do much for pain relief and isn’t something I’ll be doing again.

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