Drugs

Are Our New Medicinal Marijuana Laws Half-Baked?

The NZ Government introduced legislation to make medicinal cannabis more available - but critics of the bill say it’ll take more than two years to make a difference.
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As the government moves forward with drug reform laws to make medicinal cannabis more available, advocates are saying the changes don’t go nearly far enough.

The Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill, introduced by Labour to parliament yesterday, will make the drug more available to those with terminal illness or suffering chronic pain. They will be able to domestically cultivate the drug for their own use, and manufacture medical products.

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Under the law changes, it will still be illegal to supply cannabis to those without a prescription from a doctor.

But Peter Dunne, the Associate Health Minister for the previous government, has hit out at what he describes as a “half baked” measures. In an op-ed published by RNZ, Dunne says the proposed legislation was “a cruel gimmick more designed to meet manifesto commitments made in the comfortable ignorance of opposition, than to make a real difference”.

The key problems the bill needed to solve were making medicinal cannabis more available and bringing the price point down, he said. The proposed bill would do neither. He said very few high-quality products were currently available, and none were currently funded by Pharmac, the crown entity that selects and subsidises New Zealand’s medical treatments.

The legislation “offers no solution or way forward and no patient suffering today will be any better off as a consequence of it,” he said.

The Drug Foundation welcomed the bill overall, saying it would give prescribing doctors more security and ultimately address the current barriers of cost, accessibility and fear that patients face in accessing medical cannabis. But they said the proposed timeframe was too long.
“The scheme will take some time to be fully operational. The estimate of a two-year wait is too long. We need a better stop-gap measure than the bill currently provides,” Executive Director Ross Bell said in a statement.

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Speaking to reporters yesterday, Health Minister David Clark admitted that, based on Australian experience, the scheme could take around two years to make significant changes to supply and accessibility. He said the legislation would, in time, result in greater supply of quality medicinal cannabis, including products made here in New Zealand.

"However, there will be people who can't wait. As an interim measure the legislation will create a legal defence for possession and use of illicit cannabis for people who are expected by their doctors to be in their last year of life. This does not make it legal for the terminally ill to use cannabis, but it means that they will not be criminalised for doing so."

Drug reform advocacy body NORML also released a statement, praising the bill as a “step in the right direction” but arguing a more patient-centred approach was needed. Cost would remain a barrier, they said.

“Cannabis meds made in NZ are likely to be cheaper but this is not certain. Current pharma-grade cannabis products are ten times the cost of illicit cannabis, which is itself ten times the cost of growing your own.”

They added that the law should be extended to benefit non-terminal patients, and said "while many terminally ill patients will benefit from the proposed legal defence, it still exposes them to arrest and prosecution, and gives no protection to their providers”.