Drugs

Why Can’t New Zealand Make Progress On Medicinal Cannabis?

Public opinion is mostly for it, so why are politics still getting in the way?

by Sasha Borissenko
13 April 2017, 2:08am

Image via Flickr user Bob Doran.

For years now, New Zealanders have been campaigning to have medicinal cannabis legalised. The drug, hailed for its low-side effects pain relief, is still technically illegal and can only be acquired through a time-consuming and expensive legal loophole. With Australia, Germany, and the UK all making moves in the last year to make medical use legal, why is New Zealand still dragging its feet?

Around 80 percent of New Zealanders said marijuana should be decriminalised for pain relief in a study last year. Last week campaigners took a 17,000-signature petition before the health select committee asking for cheaper, easier access to the drug.

But despite the public momentum, in New Zealand the legal situation remains complicated. The Ministry of Health has said the cannabis compound found in CBD falls under the Misuse of Drugs Act. This means sick New Zealanders are forced to apply to the Ministry of Health, which is costly, and difficult. Yet, advocates say because CBD doesn't have the psychoactive effects of THC, CBD falls outside of the legislation. The Government's own scientists have even said so.

The legalisation debate reared its ugly head again this week, when the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs had its biannual meeting to discuss the legal status of Cannabis-derived oil cannabidiol (CBD). Their recommendations from the latest meeting have not yet been made public—nor have those from the discussions they held six months earlier. In the meantime, the public is left hanging.

Manu Caddie is a business development manager for Hikurangi Enterprises, a pharmaceutical social enterprise based in the East Coast that has been growing its first crop of CBD hemp. They have a licence to grow the CBD, but can't sell it to medical manufacturers under the current status quo.

"I know plenty of growers who say they are growing the product according to the law—that's without the psychoactive element. It's difficult when the Ministry interprets this differently".

Manu told VICE that it's disappointing that the Government has taken such a conservative position—especially seeing as CBD has such potential for the country—in health and economic terms.

"We're about creating jobs and economic development for people in the East Coast. We'd also like to help people with serious health conditions."

Prime Minister Bill English publically stated the legalisation of marijuana is not on the agenda for his government, saying it risks promoting a wider "marijuana industry".

Meanwhile, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne told VICE he's considering advice from the Ministry "but generally speaking, I favour access to appropriately manufactured medicinal products for therapeutic purposes where clinically indicated".

"My understanding is that the Prime Minister's view is the same," he said.

Ministry of Health protection, assurance and regulation director Dr Stewart Jessamine told VICE applications to prescribe unapproved cannabis-based products are considered on a case-by-case basis.

"The Ministry agree with the Government's position that it doesn't support the use of unprocessed or partially processed cannabis leaf or flower preparations for medicinal use.

"It's certainly not uncommon for CBD to be classified as a controlled drug and the New Zealand position reflects that of many other jurisdictions."

Green Party MP health spokesperson Julie Anne Genter sat on last week's health select committee meeting and told VICE "our archaic drug laws are getting in the way of health treatments that people desperately need".

"I think the Prime Minister's views on this are very old fashioned, conservative, and frankly, out of step with both New Zealanders and the scientific and medical experts."

Nelson lawyer and long-time campaigner Sue Grey is "sick of the bureaucracy around what is a human rights issue that relates to health, not crime".

Just this month she was contacted by a triple amputee from the West Coast who was prosecuted for using cannabis to treat phantom limb pains, she says.

"The list is endless and I see cases like this on a weekly basis. A young mother contacted me after having her cannabis seized. She was using the cannabis plants to help manage severe pain from a serious back injury and and reduce her dependence on prescription opiates. The side effects of opiates resulted in her being hospitalised on many occasions.

"Police entering the property of sick people adds significant stress to their lives especially when they've already got debilitating conditions. It seems like a no-brainer when there's a product that works so well for so many people.

In which case, Sue's prepared to go to court to fight the legal status. "If we file in court we have to be committed to going through with it. I'm surprised it's had to get to this point especially as the Government's advisors have had expert advice from their analysts at Environment Science Research that CBD is not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act.

"I do not understand how their policymakers can justify defending their current restriction on CBD, which is completely out of step with the international research, patient reports of its effectiveness, and developments in other states to facilitate access to CBD—due to its effectiveness and minimal side effects compared to opiates."

Yet, the Associate Health Minister told VICE, "I take my advice from reputable official sources—not Ms Grey".

"Ms Grey has been threatening legal action for some time now but as yet, I understand has not proceeded with that course. If she believes the courts are the appropriate domain for resolving her issues with the Ministry of Health's interpretation of the legislation, that is her decision to make."

For now, the case around the legalisation of CBD is at a stalemate. Associate Minister Peter Dunne has no obligation to follow the advice put forward to the Ministry of Health by the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs, or any recommendations made by the health select committee.

For those who say the treatment is a pain-relief "miracle drug", it looks like there's a long wait ahead.

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