New Zealand’s oldest cannabis law reform group has offered qualified support for Helen Kelly’s proposal for a binding referendum on medicinal cannabis.

Cannabis is useful for treating a wide variety of conditions including pain, nausea, inflammation, cancer, epilepsy and diabetes, and according to Government statistics may be used medically by as many as two hundred thousand New Zealanders.

In a candid post on The Standard, former Union boss Helen Kelly has called for a binding referendum at the next election. The Dominion Post reported:

Kelly, who has lung cancer, has been taking cannabis oil sourced from the black market to relieve her pain and believes it is “absolutely ludicrous” New Zealand’s laws have forced her to do so. “If we can have a referendum on the New Zealand flag, then we can have a referendum on this issue,” she said on Saturday.

NORML’s spokesperson Chris Fowlie expressed support for a referendum – if it was binding and had the right wording – but said immediate Government action would be better.

Binding referendums can be created by statute, which could be a Government Bill or a Private Member’s Bill. An example of a binding referendum created by government would be the flag referendum.

“In the past NORML has hesitated to support a Citizen’s Initiated Referendum,” said Mr Fowlie. “Although opinion polls have consistently show large majorities supporting cannabis law reform, Citizen’s Initiated Referendum are non-binding and they have all been ignored.”

“NORML would support a binding referendum, but the wording would be crucial,” said Mr Fowlie. “A poorly worded referendum could set us back, or be used by the Government to defend inaction.”

“Despite remarkable progress overseas, and calls by the NZ Law Commission for a “compassionate approach”, medical cannabis remains illegal in New Zealand without special dispensation from the Minister of Health,” said Mr Fowlie. “Contrary to assurances by Peter Dunne, cannabis it is not treated the same as any other medicine.”

NORML has identified some of the ways medicinal cannabis is not treated the same as other medicines:

  • Cannabis is treated more strictly than other Class C drugs;
  • There is only one cannabis medicine available, an extract called Sativex. Patients must convince their doctors to apply for dispensation from the Minister of Health but this is not required for other medicines such as Morphine etc;
  • An application will only be considered if every other medicine has been tried and does not work; this requirement is not applied to other medicines and can waste patient’s time and energy trying a cocktail of ineffective, harmful or addictive pharmaceuticals;
  • The Government refuses to consider allowing patients to use natural herbal cannabis even if this works best for them;
  • Cannabis medicines are not subsidised by Pharmac, whereas other less effective medicines are (Pharmac has said it may consider subsidising patients on a case by case basis, but has yet to do this);
  • Other cannabis medicines are technically available – the first and only approval so far was a hemp extract Elixinol for Alex Renton – but there are additional requirements for all cannabis medicines other than Sativex. These include:
    • the patient must have a severe or life threatening condition;
    • the patient is only eligible if hospitalised;
    • there must be a peer review of the doctor’s recommendation;
    • there must be a cost/benefit analysis performed by “qualified clinical specialists”.

“As Helen Kelly has noted, this is a long and arduous process to put patients through. But a referendum could also take several years to happen,” said Mr Fowlie. “Our preferred approach would be for the Government to take a lead on this, instead of dragging it’s heels and making people needlessly suffer.”

“We could look to Germany, which is the latest country to join 27 States in the USA, Australia, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Austria, Argentina, Mexico and Canada in regulating a safe legal supply of medicinal cannabis for patients with the recommendation of their doctor.”

The German Federal Health Ministry presented a draft new law on 7 January which would set up a state cannabis agency to regulate the cultivation and distribution of cannabis to all pharmacies.

Germany had already authorised more than 500 patients (suffering from at least 60 different diseases, including chronic pain, inflammatory diseases, psychiatric conditions, neurological diseases, appetite loss and nausea) to use medicinal cannabis, but like the current situation in New Zealand patients had to apply for special permission and pay for it themselves.

The new Government Bill would give more patients access to cannabis-based medicines (including cannabis flowers, extracts, dronabinol and nabilone), and directs their costs to be reimbursed by insurance companies as long as they participate in accompanying research. Any doctor will be able to prescribe cannabis flowers, which will be available from every pharmacy. The maximum amount to be prescribed will be set at 100 grams per month, but this amount can be exceeded in justified cases. The Bill directs the German equivalent of Medsafe – the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices – to supervise the production and distribution of cannabis products, and also set the maximum price for cannabis in pharmacies.

“This seems like a sensible approach to us, and would negate the need for an expensive and time consuming referendum,” said Mr Fowlie. “But if we do need to force a referendum, NORML is ready and able to help.”

New Zealand Polls about medicinal cannabis include:

  • A TVNZ poll in May 2015 showed an increase in support for medicinal cannabis, and that only 21% of respondents support the current law
  • A Herald poll from June 2014 shows most people want cannabis made legal or decriminalised – including 45% of National Party voters
  • A follow up NZ Herald poll two months later found “almost 80 per cent of those polled wanted cannabis to be at least partially legalised.”
  • TV3’s 3rd Degree in July 2013 found 98% of respondents agreed medicinal cannabis should be allowed
  • A TV3/TNZ poll from November 2006 found 63 per cent of respondents support legalising marijuana for pain relief.