What questions will a green doctor ask you? What should you do if police see your weed? And should you really drink it in a tea?
Natalie Lowe is placing her sandwich board on a central Auckland footpath. She’s been outside mere seconds when she’s approached by three burly men in hi-vis vests. Lowe knows what’s coming next, because this happens to her often. “Do you have weed in there?” asks one, pointing towards her Newton clinic. “Yes,” she nods.
Soon, a group of passers-by have gathered, and they’re throwing question after question at her. They want to know what she does, where her weed comes from, and how they can get their hands on some. “Is it actually legal?” asks one of them. Yes, she nods again. “How do I get some?” Make an appointment, she suggests. “How much is it?” asks another. Depends, says Lowe.
One can’t believe what he’s hearing. He stands there, shaking his head in disbelief but grinning from ear to ear. Finally, he stammers: “New Zealand, eh?”
The legal weed industry is changing, fast. Lowe is at the front of it. Her late husband Mark Hotu opened the doors of his Auckland clinic Green Doctors in 2018 when patients could be offered just two products. Now, five years later, it’s one of three in the region. Along with more dotted around the country, doctors can offer more than 13 different varieties, from THC and CBD oils to smokeable dried marijuana flowers.
Lowe took over the business following Hotu’s death from cancer and Covid-related causes in January. She’s moved the clinic from Ponsonby to a bigger premises on Upper Queen Street and is expanding to cope with demand. (As we previously reported, the Ministry of Health allowed prescription dried cannabis flower to be offered to patients in February, 2022, and last month, the first New Zealand-grown product was approved for patients.)
The Spinoff visited to ask Lowe some questions of our own. We wanted to know some basics about how the medicinal marijuana industry operates, who’s coming to her for help, and how they’re finding out about it – the kind of things we keep getting asked since publishing our previous stories.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
The Spinoff: Thanks for doing this, Natalie. So how long have you been able to offer patients dried medicinal marijuana (aka legal weed)?
Since February last year.
What kind of issues are patients asking for help with?
Natalie Lowe: Pain, anxiety, sleep. They’re the three main ones, and they always have been. But then we have people who have cancer and they need relief from whatever that may be, or they’ve got side effects from cancer drugs, like nausea. It can help with that. We have kids with epilepsy, kids with Tourette’s. It’s really good with seizures, elderly patients with arthritis. Depression [is another one]. There are a lot of people after Covid who are feeling depressed. They’ve lost their jobs, their livelihoods. It’s not a silver bullet, but [medicinal marijuana] can certainly aid a lot of people.
What’s the difference between coming to a green-minded doctor like yours and a regular GP?
Regular GPs have got too much to do and they don’t know enough about it so they don’t know how to prescribe it. Here, the doctors are specially trained so they know a lot more about it. While they can prescribe dried flower, if you’ve got something else going on, a rash or whatever it might be, they can prescribe [for] that stuff as well. It’s a consultation designed for you.
Do different medicinal cannabis products have different results?
It ranges from the CBD oils, to a blend, to a full-strength THC oil. Then you move into the flowers. With different strains and different sativas the strength moves up. The doctor will prescribe the product that’s right for each patient based on their experience with cannabis. If they’re a regular smoker of cannabis then obviously they’re not going to get much of a benefit from something that’s low THC. It really does depend on what they want it for and what their history is. We have to screen them for any history of schizophrenia or psychosis.
What would happen if someone came in here and said, ‘I just want to get high’?
It doesn’t happen. The people who get in touch with us have a medical condition. They’ve got migraines, or PTSD, or X, Y or Z. Or they’ve read about medicinal cannabis and think it might be good for them. Sometimes, their GP doesn’t know enough about it. Or they’ve heard about us another way. They end up here for one of those reasons.
So once patients have had their consultation they can take their prescription with them at the same time?
How much does it cost?
A consultation is $49. Product costs are listed on our website.
What do you advise patients do if they’re pulled over by police with their prescription weed in the car?
We say take a picture [of the prescription label] so you can show that to police. If you’re carrying it in your car, it should have the label on it.
What are the rules around driving with THC in your system?
It’s an impairment test. Police have their own judgement. This is probably a better guide than me talking about it. [She hands me a pamphlet that says: “You can lawfully drive while taking medicinal cannabis as long as you are not impaired.” More information is available here.]
I don’t see advertisements for your services or products anywhere. Why?
If frustrates the hell out of me. We can’t put a billboard up with our name ‘Green Doctors’ on it. It’s really crazy. We’re allowed to put a sign out on the footpath. We’re allowed to talk to media because that’s “a story”.
But you’re not allowed to talk about the actual products, correct?
We can only talk about them in a generic way. We struggle to do things on Google, they have a blanket rule about cannabis. We haven’t pushed too hard because the fines are so large.
Are patients still being recommended to take their medicinal marijuana steeped in hot water, like a tea?
Yes. Doctors would never encourage smoking it because we know that vaping it is much better for your lungs. We encourage people to use a medical vaporiser, not just one from the vape shops, because you can control the temperature better and work better with the products that have been designed for you.
Lastly, can you get your prescription weed couriered to your home?
Yes, that’s a service that’s allowed, because doctors prescribed it.