‘Few would provide an effective dose’: ESR does first-of-its-kind testing on

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Hundreds of thousands of Kiwis rely on the black market for medicinal cannabis products, but many have no idea what they’re actually buying. Now, for the first time, ESR has tested those products to see what’s in them. Benn Bathgate reports.

It started with an approach from a concerned grandfather to some of the country’s top science brains at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), the Crown Research Institute.

His daughter had been provided a green fairy cannabis product to treat her four-year-old son, and he wanted to know what was in it.

‘Green fairy’ refers to someone who supplies cannabis to others for medicinal reasons.

ESR tested 100 ‘green fairy’ samples from across New Zealand. Here, a green fairy shows his product.

Chris Skelton/Stuff

ESR tested 100 ‘green fairy’ samples from across New Zealand. Here, a green fairy shows his product.

The ESR team of Onyekachi​ Raymond, Mary Jane McCarthy, Jesse Baker and Helen Poulsen​ tested that product, and 99 other green fairy samples they obtained.

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The grandfather was glad he asked.

“It was meant to be a CBD product, but we found it contained more THC than CBD,” said the ESR team, referring to different chemical elements found within cannabis.

“Thankfully he threw it out.”

Their findings, a first-of-its-kind examination of the cannabis black market, were a mixed bag.

“The results of the analyses show that these green fairy products contain a wide range of cannabinoid concentrations, and the claim that a product was high in CBD was often not correct,” their research paper said.

ESR found a wide range of results from different green fairy cannabis products.

Chris Skelton/Stuff

ESR found a wide range of results from different green fairy cannabis products.

“The proposed dose size was not specified for these products, but few would provide what is considered an effective dose when compared with the administration of commercially purified cannabinoid product available by prescription.”

The ESR team ran the rule over products including vape juices, tinctures, oil-based solutions, cannabis plant, coconut oil extracts and fully extracted cannabis oil (FECO), and were careful not to demonise their makers.

“The people making these green fairy products are trying to provide relief to the many people suffering from a range of illnesses who believe that the use of cannabis-based medicines is their only therapeutic option,” they said.

Pearl Schomburg​ is one of the ‘many people’, and said her green fairy, who she calls ‘Gandalf’, has been her saviour.

Pearl Schomburg is a great-grandmother who uses medicinal cannabis as pain relief. She said that while she worries every day about the illegality, she believes she is ‘safer in plain sight, telling an honest story’.

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

Pearl Schomburg is a great-grandmother who uses medicinal cannabis as pain relief. She said that while she worries every day about the illegality, she believes she is ‘safer in plain sight, telling an honest story’.

The Auckland great-grandmother, who suffers from RSI and arthritis, began her journey to the black market the last time she left a chemist.

She had two bags of medicines, pills for her conditions, and pills to counter their side effects, and saw herself reflected in the window “with two sacks of pills”.

“With all these pills I was not well,” she said.

“I’d already arranged my suicide. I wasn’t functioning at any level.”

It was while googling arthritis and cannabis that she remembered something lurking at the back of her fridge, some “manky, rancid cannabis butter” a friend had made.

“A couple of wipes and the pain started receding,” she said.

Pearl Schomburg rubs cannabis balm onto her joints to alleviate the symptoms of RSI and arthritis.

Craig Hoyle/Stuff

Pearl Schomburg rubs cannabis balm onto her joints to alleviate the symptoms of RSI and arthritis.

“I knew within a very short period of time this was making me feel better.”

Schomburg said she had two legal prescriptions for medicinal cannabis, but living on a benefit, the cost was simply too much.

She keeps the prescriptions, and a letter of support from her doctor, “to justify my illegal access”.

Pearl Schomburg says there's a “constant stress” that comes with using black market medicinal cannabis.

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

Pearl Schomburg says there’s a “constant stress” that comes with using black market medicinal cannabis.

“As unwell people we live with that constant stress.”

Schomburg’s green fairy, Gandalf, said he had helped thousands of people in the six years he had been making illegal medicinal cannabis products. He asked that his real name not be used.

“Most would never ever consider taking cannabis, but they’ve seen the results,” he said.

A green fairy shows a cannabis plant that's being grown in a discreet location.

Chris Skelton/Stuff

A green fairy shows a cannabis plant that’s being grown in a discreet location.

He said doctors were not properly trained in cannabis medicine, imported products were “basically rubbish”, and regulations preventing whole of plant use were needlessly restrictive.

He laughed off any concerns about the law.

“I’m an old hippie, and I’ve never had any great affection for the law.”

A police spokesperson said police would continue to “apply discretion on a daily basis in dealing with a wide range of matters, including the use and possession of drugs”.

Mitch Cuevas​, the pharmaceutical director of medicinal cannabis start-up Eqalis​, said price was one reason the green fairy market existed.

Mitch Cuevas says price is a huge factor is sustaining the black market for medicinal cannabis products.

Supplied

Mitch Cuevas says price is a huge factor is sustaining the black market for medicinal cannabis products.

He said prescribed medicinal cannabis prices could be “exceptionally high”, going up to $500 a month.

He said other reasons included the absence of large pharmaceutical giants from the space, reluctance from frontline GPs to prescribe, and the fact start-ups such as his were “starting from scratch”.

Cuevas said he believed domestic products would appear on the market next year at a more affordable price.

New Zealand Medical Cannabis Council executive director Sally King agreed cost was a major barrier.

“The other factor is the limited range of products currently available,” she said.

Sally King says green fairies serve those who can't afford legal but unsubsidised medicinal cannabis products.

Ross Giblin/Stuff

Sally King says green fairies serve those who can’t afford legal but unsubsidised medicinal cannabis products.

“There are green fairies who either give their product away or only accept donations, so many are reaching patients who simply can’t afford the legal but unsubsidised medicinal cannabis products.”

Medical Cannabis Awareness New Zealand coordinator Shane Le Brun said he knew of a small circle of reputable green fairy suppliers, but warned against “plain old-fashioned dealers masquerading as compassionate suppliers”.

Shane Le Brun warns against “plain old-fashioned dealers masquerading as compassionate suppliers”.

Scott Hammond/Stuff

Shane Le Brun warns against “plain old-fashioned dealers masquerading as compassionate suppliers”.

“The main risk is being ripped off,” he said.

“The [ESR] study shows that good flower and FECO extracts are generally trustworthy, while many of the oils are so watered down that legal oils offer far better bang for buck.”

Le Brun said the report showed that “those doing FECO aren’t messing around.”

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick said it was frustrating to see how slowly the issue of medicinal cannabis was being addressed.

Swarbrick, the party’s spokesperson for drug reform, said she was “constantly being told it has been resolved”, which wasn’t true.

Chlöe Swarbrick says it’s frustrating to see how slowly the issue of medicinal cannabis is being addressed.

Tim Onnes/Supplied

Chlöe Swarbrick says it’s frustrating to see how slowly the issue of medicinal cannabis is being addressed.

She said “without a shadow of a doubt” the black market existed because of failings in the current regulatory climate, including the “impossibly high standards” manufacturers have to meet to get to market.

Swarbrick said recent research suggested 11 per cent of Kiwis – around 440,000 people – were regular cannabis users and of those, 43 per cent used for medical reasons.

“We have hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders using medicinal cannabis… the system is making them criminals.”

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