The fate of New Zealand medicinal cannabis law is currently in the hands of parliament’s health select committee, as they hear submissions on proposed changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act. As of now, cannabis-derived medicine is only a little bit legal. Cannabidoil (CBD oil) can be prescribed as a last resort for those suffering serious pain. Once prescribed however, it’s tricky to get your hands on and certainly isn’t cheap. But the new bill provides a legal protection for terminally ill people to use marijuana within the last year of life, and allows for a regulation-making power to set standards for manufacture, import and supply. And with law change on the horizon, The Hemp Foundation ran a class that gave GPs the 411 on the 420 remedy.
Hemp 101 was scheduled for a Saturday, in a building owned by the Auckland Catholic Diocese. A class of 35 clattered into a high-ceilinged room off a large empty hall. The place summoned up Girl Guides, church and high school exams all at once. A white board took up most of a wall showing the plan for the day, with “group work” scheduled in just before lunch. Hemp 101 wasn’t a marijuana fun-day, nor were there bud themed goodie bags—I did get a certificate though—and disappointingly not a single mention of 4/20, the sacred stoner holiday that occurred the day prior to the course. Most of the people there were serious doctors who were there to do some serious learning about some serious weed science. I cornered a few of them to find out what they really think of medical cannabis.
VICE: Hi Madeline. Why are you here today?
Madeline: Because I know little to nothing about medicinal cannabis, and I think that my patients deserve me learning more about this. Because it potentially will–well I hope it will–become more normalised in New Zealand and used more, and I think it would be unacceptable for me to not know about other medicines my patients should have access to.
Is there anything you’ve learned today that’s been brand new info?
It’s nice to hear the history and stuff but I kind of already know about the shitty war on drugs and how that has hugely influenced medicine and pushed us away from looking at even other kinds of regulated drugs. Mainly I’m interested in the prescribing and how I can actually bring it into my practice.
Are your patients actually asking you for it?
Yup. There are patients that have brought it up and also patients that I think could benefit from it. I think my biggest shock—'cause I worked in the hospital for quite some time and I’ve only just started doing full time GP—was seeing the amount of patients with chronic pain who were addicted to medicines they really should have never been started on, and that I have to continue giving scripts to and feel awful writing them out and knowing that I’m potentially causing harm as well as not actually giving them any benefit at all.
What do you want to see happen with the law?
I’m pro–legalisation of most drugs, as a way to reduce harm and prison populations and things like that. Medical cannabis is a step, but I’m quite liberal with my view of drug laws.
What’s big pharma’s role in all of this?
It seems pretty clear that a lot of campaigning out there is from big pharma, but I’m wondering when the tides change that they’re going to start owning and producing medical marijuana. It isn’t ideal, but it will probably improve access and things like that. As long as your patients can get access to it then you kind of just have to leave the politics behind.
Philip Gluckman, GP
What did you plan to learn at Hemp 101?
I just wanted to know a bit about the basic science behind the different chemicals in cannabis I guess—and how people are thinking about it.
Is there a demand from your patients?
Absolutely. I’ve had quite a lot question me about it over the years. More recently about CBD oil, because it’s available, but the cost is too prohibitive for any of my patients.
Why do people ask for it?
Pain. That would be the big one really. Severe arthritis, cancer, chronic back pain, fibromyalgia.
Have you ever prescribed CBD oil?
One person got a prescription off me, but they decided they couldn’t afford it. I think it was about $470 a month or something. Just too prohibitive.
How do you feel about laws around medicinal cannabis being in review?
I do have a concern about keeping this stuff away from adolescents. I mean, I think it’s a bit of a dangerous drug for people who haven’t had their frontal lobes fully wired. But that’s an education thing really.
Steve* - GP
Why are you spending your Saturday learning about medicinal cannabis?
I am actually super passionate about integrative medicine, complementary medicine, alternative medicines, things like that.
What’s your biggest takeaway from today?
I didn’t know much about the various compounds within it. It was actually pretty interesting to learn there’s like a hundred and something cannabinoids which all seem to have medicinal properties and they all work synergistically. THC and CBD are just two of those 100 plus cannabinoids and THC is, from what I understood, one of the least important of the cannabinoids. It’s kind of a relief in one way because you have the argument of saying you can have medicinal cannabis without any THC, or anything that gets you high, which I think was quite a surprise.
Have any of your patients asked for a medical cannabis script?
Well, no one’s really asked for it, however I have a lot of multiple sclerosis patients, chronic pain patients, fatigued patients, stressed patients, insomnia patients and when I bring up the information they are very keen to try it. But cost is the biggest barrier for them.
Ron Goedeke - GP, Cosmetic Physician
Why did you want to go the course?
Well, I’m interested in wellness and preventative medicine, maybe the best word for it is integrative medicine. It’s one of the reasons, but I also have high blood pressure and I’m on two medications. Blood pressure medication does not have a huge reduction in one’s blood pressure. And we know that with the cannabinoid system and taking CBD oil there’s a positive effect on wellness, on anti-aging, on anti-inflammation, on improving bone density, on improving cardiovascular rhythm, on neurological issues—and one of the many benefits is a reduction in blood pressure.
Was there anything that challenged what you already thought you knew?
Do you think you could prescribe it down the line?
It’s a possibility, because things will change. Yes, and it is being used in cosmetic creams to reduce inflammation and it helps skin healing. So it’s already being used in a cosmetics setting in America and in Europe.
What would you like to see happen with potential law changes?
It needs to become readily accessible and affordable. CBD oil should be an over the counter product I believe—because it’s so safe.
* Not his real name.
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