If New Zealand is shrouded by a long white cloud of anything, it's dope smoke. So how is it that Australia has not only beaten us to legalising medical marijuana, but the bill passed parliament with almost complete support? It's not like Australia is some bastion of liberal, touch-feely values either. Their last holdout state didn't give women the vote until 1911, almost 20 years behind New Zealand, and they held on to the death penalty until 1967, again, four years after its abolition in New Zealand.
If anyone here is likely to force a rethink on medicinal weed, it's cancer patient and former Union leader Helen Kelly. While she's gaining public sympathy for her calm campaigning, so far Kelly has got the cold shoulder from Peter Dunne who declined her application to use medicinal cannabis while undergoing chemo.
So how long will it take to pass similar legislation passed here? And will Australia's move make any difference for Kiwi lawmakers? We asked New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell for an update.
VICE: Hi Ross. So do you think New Zealand has fallen behind?
Ross Bell: Well no. The interesting thing with the Australian law change is that it's actually brought them in line with New Zealand. We've been allowing cultivation for research purposes since the 70s. The exciting element [and difference] is that Australia is having a much more public discussion around the issue.
Do you think Australia's bill will have an influence here?
Maybe. I think the New Zealand government now seems more open to a new approach because they don't want to be left behind. We might be able to hang our hats on the nuclear free and women's vote stuff, but we're not up with the play on this one.
What do you think legalisation would look like here?
This is where things get tricky. See, what do you mean by legalising? Does this mean people growing their own plants or cannabis being issued in a pharmaceutical form? Because the New Zealand government won't go with people growing their own to fix a sore back. Minister (Peter) Dunne is clear that he'd be willing to issue products that have met certain thresholds. He claims he'd schedule them right now, so he says the law doesn't need to change.
So what's stopping medicinal marijuana to meet these "certain thresholds"?
Well, Peter Dunne has announced that he's having another look at the guidelines around how we approve medical applications. Which means he's looking at whether or not the officials have been too strict.
Aside from that, the biggest block is the lack of medical research and the small number of products undergoing trials. If a product was to be approved by the FDA or some other country then New Zealand would make it available. But then there is yet another barrier—nervous doctors who don't want to be seen proscribing a natural plant to their patients. If cannabis could be administered in a white pill I think they would be much happier.
So we're in a holding pattern until Australia brings out some pills or New Zealand's guidelines change?
Look, I've given up trying to predict the future. If you'd asked me three years ago whether commercial cannabis would be available in the USA I'd have laughed at you. If I can say anything I'd say that things are going to move along much more quickly than any of us would have thought. The driver behind this is interesting. See, while recreational cannabis use is something being pushed mostly by the younger demographic, medical cannabis is a 50-plus issue. These are parents and grand parents who have seen the benefits within their families and that is a powerful motivation. We just need more pharmaceutical products to come out of the FDA or more reliable evidence out of Australia.