A cannabis-based spray called Sativex can be legally prescribed in New Zealand. But the drug is rarely used, since the government hasn’t subsidized it.
Although medical marijuana is illegal in New Zealand, a pharmaceutical cannabis extract has been available since 2008 for patients with multiple sclerosis. Other conditions may qualify, but the health ministry must approve all requests first.
Even still, only four people have an active prescription for Sativex and only 48 have ever been approved, local media TVNZ reports.
Patients who’ve tried it say it works, and there is clinical data to back it up. But the cost of Sativex has led many patients to choose cheaper, illegal forms of medical marijuana instead.
New Zealand resident Billy McKee told TVNZ that he was approved for Sativex several years ago, but couldn’t afford the high price.
“They don’t really want people to do the right thing. They don’t really want people to have safe medicine.”
According to the Pharmaceutical Management Agency (Pharmac), the government agency that decides what drugs are subsidized, an average annual prescription of Sativex costs around $20,200 ($16,650 US).
Sativex isn’t currently subsidized by Pharmac, so patients must pay the full cost.
But the agency hasn’t rejected the idea. A spokesman told TVNZ that it has yet to consider Sativex since a funding application, which comes from drug companies, has never been submitted.
“It is not something we have ever looked at but the first step would be for someone to lodge a funding application.”
Novartis Ignores Sativex
Sativex is made by British company GW Pharmaceuticals, which is licensed by the UK government to grow cannabis.
However, in early 2011, GW gave Novartis the exclusive right to market and distribute Sativex in New Zealand and Australia, along with all of Africa, Asia (excluding Japan and China) and the Middle East.
Novartis is among the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, with sales in the range of $60 billion a year.
While Novartis has yet to request cost coverage for Sativex in New Zealand, in late 2011, Novartis submitted a funding application for Gilenya, the company’s own multiple sclerosis drug used to prevent disease relapse.
According to the Pharmac website, the application is still under assessment.
Novartis is also in the midst of conducting Phase 2 trials on a new, non-cannabis based drug for treating spasticity in multiple sclerosis.
GW has set up similar distribution agreements with Bayer, Otsuka, and Almirall.