An Auckland woman with multiple sclerosis is set to become a “guinea pig” for a new medicinal cannabis extract.
Dr Huhana Hickey is the first person in the country to receive approval for Tilray, which was recently cleared for use by Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne.
Tilray could be around half the price of Sativex, which until now has been the only cannabis product approved for use in New Zealand. Hickey was given permission in February to use Sativex, but has struggled to cover the costs.
“$1200 a month does take a toll,” she said. “I’ve had to chase up my Kiwisaver, take out a loan, and it’s put me in debt.
“I probably could have managed another two or three months, and then I’d have to stop and go back on morphine.”
That’s something she was keen to avoid. Until switching to Sativex, Hickey relied on a potent cocktail of drugs to survive with the pain caused by her multiple sclerosis.
“I was a zombie,” she said. “My liver was starting to break down, my organs were starting to play up, and I just thought there has to be more to life.”
Shane Le Brun, who founded the advocacy charity Medicinal Cannabis Awareness, said prohibitive costs have held many Kiwis back from applying for Sativex.
“There are so many people qualified for it, but they can’t afford it, so they don’t apply,” he said.
Le Brun helped Hickey with her application for Tilray, and is confident the new treatment will be a success.
“We’re hoping Tilray will work just as well, and it will open up the doors for an alternative product that’s much cheaper,” he said
There are currently 42 active approvals for Sativex, according to figures from the Ministry of Health.
Pharmac is open to funding medicinal cannabis products, but Director of Operations Sarah Fitt said the Pharmacology and Therapeutics Advisory Committee had advised there was not yet sufficient evidence that Sativex was effective.
“At this time Sativex remains unfunded,” she said. “Pharmac routinely seeks advice where new
information becomes available and can reconsider an application at any time.
“Pharmac has not been asked to review Tilray, but would welcome an application for funding should it be registered by Medsafe.”
However Hickey believes Pharmac should consider at least partially funding medicinal cannabis products, so that New Zealanders aren’t forced into crime for the sake of their health.
“People are doing it regardless, they’re not going to stop doing it,” she said.
Hickey is adamant she wants to avoid going down the black market route; a last resort sought by others such as former trade union boss Helen Kelly, who died last month after a long battle with cancer.
“I really don’t want to go to jail,” she said. “They can’t look after me in jail, they have no prison hospitals, they have no real proper treatment and care.”
She’s also worried about the impact smoking illegal weed could have on her job as a researcher and lecturer at AUT University.
Hickey will record a video blog when she starts taking Tilray, to keep a record of the effects of the treatment.
Anyone who would like to follow her journey can watch the videos via her public Facebook page.
To Donate to Huhana to help with her medicine costs, go to the #MC410 fundraiser on Givealittle