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For people who are grappling with any variety of illness, cannabis-derived oil cannabidiol (CBD) has been hailed around the world as a miracle pain-relief alternative, due to its lack of side effects. It is legal in 40 countries and not listed in the United Nations treaty convention on Psychotropic Substances.
But access to CBD here is highly restricted. Sick New Zealanders, like toddler Venus, are forced to apply to the Ministry of Health, which can be costly, long, and often impossible. According to Nelson lawyer Sue Grey, for every 100 applications to the Minister, only 10 get approval. Sue says that those who've managed to avoid the system and get their hands on the drugs might be doing so illegally in the eyes of the Government—but she argues they're acting legally under the rule of law.
It all comes down to science. The Ministry of Health has said the cannabis compound found in CBD falls under the Misuse of Drugs Act. This goes against the advice of the Government's own scientists, who say "CBD should be considered as a prescription medicine".
Sue is prepared to take the government to court to prove there's no legal case for restricting CBD use. So VICE talked to her about her plight, and the legal ins and outs of the situation.
VICE: Hi Sue, let's get straight to it, what's your take on the issue?
Sue Grey: It all started with a bank of Official Information Act requests where I was trying to understand the Ministry of Health's interpretation of the law around CBD, cannabidiol. It's currently a Class B controlled drug that doctors can't prescribe without special approval from the Minister, yet it's not listed under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
CBD is a different substance to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive constituent of cannabis. There aren't known harmful effects to individuals or society so it's not covered by the Act. It's also not a hallucinogen.
Unlike morphine or other prescribed pain medications, there aren't the same side effects. Clients have told me that unlike morphine, for example, where you're spaced out to the world around you, CBD is much gentler and milder where people suffering from multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, or trying to counter the effects of chemotherapy, for example, could live a relatively normal life. The quality of life for the people most vulnerable could be huge.
CBD is recognised as a very effective treatment for a range of illnesses overseas. Even here, I've even got documentation where the Ministry's own chief advisor, Keith Bedford agrees that the benefits are huge and it's logistically not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act. When you've got the Ministry's own experts saying it isn't covered, you've got to wonder what's going on.
Has the Ministry responded to you?
They're stalling and I've been told they're getting advice from a government body, which ironically includes Keith who's in agreement that there's been a misinterpretation of the Act. It's a waiting game. Supposedly the committee has another meeting pencilled in for April.
They've said the substance could be harmful if you combine it with acid, but if you combine anything with acid of course it's going to turn into something else, so what?!
So you're going to take the government to court, then?
I've got a number of affidavits at the ready. I've petitioned to the government to stop misinterpreting the law and it would be beneficial to all to avoid court proceedings but we might be left with little choice. I'm hoping the Ministry will review their position immediately. Society has to abide by the law, the government has to play by the rules too.
In the meantime my clients and a school of others are saying this is just taking too long so they're being forced to find alternative avenues.
Are they "breaking the law" by getting the medication, regardless?
I'd argue they're not breaking the law at all. Customs are being illegally instructed by the Ministry of Health saying that it's illegal to import CBD. But if the substance isn't under the Misuse of Drugs Act, there's no basis to do that. That's the end of it.
What do you suspect is the issue?
I really do not understand why the Ministry has decided to draw a line as it's not supported by scientific experts, it's not supported by law, and it's certainly not humanitarian. There are sick people who could be accessing safe and affordable medication that's widely regarded around the world and yet we've got some bureaucrats sitting in Wellington saying no arbitrarily.
The government is a lame sitting duck who's not engaging with the public, which is incredible seeing as it's election year. And we've all seen what can happen when states don't listen public opinion.
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