Medicinal Cannabis in Palliative Care

Information about medicinal cannabis treatments in New Zealand for patients and carers in palliative care.

Providing patients with supportive palliative care treatments that reduces the burden of their health issues without impeding quality of life is challenging but incredibly important. Often the strong medications patients are given at the palliative care stage can actually make them feel as if their ability to live life to the fullest has been restricted. Palliative care is about balancing the treatment of symptoms with the side effects of medications. Medical cannabis has shown promise in the treatment and management of a range of health issues and it is generally well tolerated which is why medicinal cannabinoids are becoming more common in palliative care.

What is Palliative care?

Palliative care is the specialised treatment for people living with serious life-limiting and often terminal illnesses. It involves supporting the patient to live the most comfortable and full life possible.

Common conditions treated through palliative care include:

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Kidney disease
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease

Patients in palliative care are often in a lot of pain and discomfort, their pain may lead to other complications such as insomnia, depression and anxiety. It’s common for patients to be prescribed heavily sedative and addictive opioid medications. While many patients do benefit from more traditional palliative treatments, some struggle with the side-effects or do not get the desired benefits. This is when patients and their doctors may consider alternative treatments such as medicinal cannabinoids for palliative care.

Are patients in palliative care eligible for medicinal cannabis?

Palliative patients in New Zealand can legally access medicinal cannabis via a prescription from their doctor. Eligibility for treatment is determined on a case-by-case basis and is at the discretion of the prescriber.

Having certain pre-existing conditions such as a history of psychosis or taking medications that may negatively interact with cannabinoids will likely exclude you from treatment unless the treatment is at the request of your specialist doctor.

What makes medicinal cannabis worth considering?

Medicinal cannabis is frequently prescribed to patients with serious medical conditions whose course of illness may result in the patient needing palliative care in the future. Most patients in palliative care are in serious pain or discomfort which cannabinoids have the potential to help with.

Medicinal cannabis treatments are relatively new to our healthcare system and the efficacy of these medicines is still unproven. For this reason, patients are typically encouraged to try traditional treatments before considering medicinal cannabis. However, for severe or persistent pain, this generally means opioid medications which bring a number of potential risks and side effects to the patient.  

Patients at the palliative stage of care rightfully want to experience life to the fullest. Effective palliative care helps manage symptoms without heavily restricting the patient’s ability to enjoy and function throughout their everyday life. Depending on the patient, medicinal cannabis may provide relief as either a complementary or standalone treatment.

Potential benefits of medicinal cannabis in palliative care:

Reduced chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting

Medicinal cannabis could be beneficial to palliative patients undergoing chemotherapy treatments thanks to its ability to influence appetite and reduce nausea. In a recent phase II trial in Australia, 85% of participants preferred natural medication compared to a placebo for the management of their nausea and vomiting. The results of the trial are promising with the natural medicine group having improved outcomes compared to the placebo group.

Pain management

Pain is a common symptom for patients receiving palliative care. In fact, studies have shown that approximately 80% of palliative care patients experience some form of pain. There are many potential causes of pain in palliative care patients, including cancer, nerve damage, and inflammation. Treatment for pain can vary depending on the cause, but may include medication, physical therapy, or psychological support. With proper management, it is possible to reduce or even eliminate pain for palliative care patients.

Anxiety, stress and sleep quality

Aside from living with the illness, being under palliative care can be unsettling in its own right. Often patients will get anxious and depressed about their state of health or their prognosis, this can worsen their overall condition. Medicinal cannabis may help ease stress, anxiety and improve sleep quality. However, it must be the right medication and tracked carefully to ensure there are no adverse effects.

Being told that you or a loved one will require palliative care can be stressful. It’s important that patients get the level of care they need, not only through medical treatment but also emotional support throughout the palliative journey. Visit to download free palliative care resources for patients, carers and families.

How do I get a prescription?

You may be eligible for a medicinal cannabis prescription if you are under palliative care however, your doctor will determine whether it is appropriate based on your medical history, current medical issues and the medications that you take.

RestoreMe offers low-cost online consultations, online ordering and delivery of your medicine. If you’re ready to enquire about medicinal cannabinoid treatment options, start our eligibility survey and book your consult. If your health situation is complex and you are on a lot of medications or you don’t meet our eligibility requirements, it may be worth speaking with your specialist doctor first and asking if they are willing to write a referral to the RestoreMe Clinic.