Medicinal cannabis: good news, bad news

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By Chris Fowlie. Originally published on The Daily Blog, 14 Dec 2017.

Good news! The Labour-led Government will introduce legislation to “legalise medicinal cannabis”, this side of Christmas.

Bad news! Based on early hints about the content of the reform, patients are fearful about whether the changes will go far enough and whether they will have to continue to resort to criminal activity.

During the election, Labour used an image of herbal or botanical cannabis to illustrate their promise.

Instead of supporting an existing Green Party Bill in the House, reports indicate the Government will introduce its own legislation, which is expected to take a a pharmaceutical-based approach. This includes:

  • Streamlining the process for doctors to prescribe cannabis-based products to patients with terminal illness or in chronic pain;
  • Allowing access to some imported botanical cannabis products in certain circumstances;
  • Licensing domestic production of refined products, but not herbal cannabis;
  • Making CBD (a non-psychoactive cannabinoid) available over the counter.

These are all very welcome moves in the right direction – but they don’t go far enough, and will leave many patients disappointed.

One in twenty New Zealanders uses cannabis medicinally, and patients say they find pharmaceutical options like Sativex to be expensive, difficult to obtain and less effective than herbal cannabis.

It appears no patients or advocacy groups have had any input into the new legislation. Good policy making would put patients at the center of the process.

Patients have called for self-provision or home growing, creating a patient ID card or register, creating a legal defense of medical necessity, and a moratorium on arrests.

Not allowing herbal use will leave thousands of medicinal cannabis users in the same position they are currently in – criminals for just trying to manage their illness. We should not put administrative ease ahead of patient-focused care.

The test of any proposed law change should be: What would Helen Kelly do? Helen Kelly didn’t campaign for pharmaceutical-only access. Helen wanted patients and caregivers to be able to grow their own, like a herbal remedy.

According to UMR polling NORML conducted with Helen Kelly last year, 76 per cent agreed when asked “Should Parliament change the laws of New Zealand so that patients have safe legal access to affordable medicinal cannabis and cannabis products when prescribed by a licensed doctor?”

NORML now has a 4-point model for medicinal cannabis law reform:

  • Patient focused: safe legal affordable access to botanical cannabis;
  • Immediate effect (not just a long-term development pathway);
  • Domestic production: via licensed providers, including small scale providers (families & individuals);
  • Self provision: choice to grow your own as a herbal remedy.

What do you think? Tell us, and tell your MP. Use the hashtag #WhatWouldHelenDo when you share or post.

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