Med student's heartfelt medicinal marijuana documentary Mum, Cannabis and Me premieres

  • 08/09/2017

A medical student is about to take on the country with a documentary about medicinal cannabis and her terminally ill mother's "heart-breaking" secret use of it.

The 30-minute investigative documentary, Mum, Cannabis and Me, premieres in Wellington on Friday night.

It is narrated by fifth year medical student Victoria Catherwood, and features interviews with cannabinoid researcher Dr Michelle Glass, public rights lawyer Sue Grey and Dr Anthony Falkov, who was Helen Kelly's cancer doctor.

Ms Catherwood hopes the film will encourage debate about medical marijuana in New Zealand – a hot topic after cannabidiol (CBD) was removed from the Misuse of Drugs Act yesterday.

"We hope to bring this discussion into the public domain to kind of let doctors feel less stigmatised about talking about it, and also to let patients have these doctors informed so that all these unnecessary harms can be minimised and any benefits can possibly be utilised."

Ms Catherwood's mother is terminally ill with breast cancer.

Feeling she'd reached the end of the "conventional medicine ladder", and on the highest dosage of every available medication, she turned to cannabis.

"She didn't have a good quality of life so she actively sought options, and cannabis was one of them," says Ms Catherwood.

"She did so in secret as well, which was a really heart-breaking thing."

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern said she "absolutely" supports the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal use.
Labour leader Jacinda Ardern said she "absolutely" supports the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal use. Photo credit: Getty

Ms Catherwood has a Masters in biochemistry of drug addiction, so the concept of cannabis was not new to her. She's had first-hand experience of seeing doctors who were unwilling to talk to their patients about medicinal cannabis, technically breaking the Patient Code of Rights.

"It was quite heart-breaking to see the doctors - who were quite often not informed about it - just sort of denying patients an informed conversation around medicinal cannabis... I was pretty frustrated, knowing some of the science and having seen the benefit in mum; then seeing the harm being caused to these patients."

It was Ms Catherwood's friend, producer and director Veronica Stevenson, who came up with the idea of the documentary.

"She suggested that we make a documentary and target it at doctors to let them know how to have informed conversations and how to access the actual evidence."

While initially aimed at educating those in the medical field, Ms Catherwood hopes the film will "clear things up" for all New Zealanders as "there seems to be a lot of confusion about it".

Medicinal cannabis use is still heavily restricted in New Zealand.

Ms Catherwood's mother uses Sativex, a cannabis-based spray which can be prescribed with approval from the Ministry of Health, but it's far from a perfect solution.

"It takes three weeks to get, it cost $1000 per month - that's about nine dollars a spray - and it tasted really gross, so she wasn't really having much benefit from it when she was feeling sick".

While she still uses Sativex - eating it when she feels too unwell to spray it - Ms Catherwood's mother combines it with regular cannabis, along with a reduced dose of conventional medication.

Cannabis has improved her sleep, reduced pain and nausea and increased her appetite.

Ms Catherwood said her mother suffers less from her medication's debilitating side effects now that she has the added pain relief of cannabis, but that having to obtain the drug through illegal means is "emotionally draining".

"It's really distressing for her and it does impact her health... she just wishes she would be able to go to her doctor like she can for her opiate drugs and get a prescription and not have to worry about accessing it through other means."

Ms Catherwood's mother is delivered her medicinal marijuana by "green fairies"; growers and suppliers who deliver cannabis to patients. She co-ordinates with them online when she is too ill to get out of bed.

Medicinal cannabis is legal in many places - but not New Zealand.
Medicinal cannabis is legal in places like California, where cannabis dispensaries are common. Photo credit: Getty

Ms Catherwood is passionate about the terminally ill having access to all available treatments.

"When it comes to terminal patients, often they do go outside of the conventional box because conventional medicine can only take them so far.

"When you have something that they can use which helps with nausea and vomiting and pain and sleep and appetite and it increases their mood, I think in terminal patients it's a given right that they should be able to have quality of life at the end."

The Medicinal Cannabis Compassionate Use Scheme established by the New South Wales government in Australia gives terminally ill patients protection against being raided or arrested for drug possession.

Following an inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2011, the New Zealand Law Commission recommended a similar scheme be set up here to give people suffering from chronic or debilitating illness the authorisation to use cannabis under medical supervision without fear of legal consequences.

Ms Catherwood says the documentary doesn't have a political goal, but that real change "ultimately does have to come from the law". She believes patients with chronic illnesses who haven't been diagnosed as terminal should also have the option of using cannabis without fear of legal persecution.

"If it suits them and their condition suggests that it will help, then I think that just because they're not terminal doesn't mean they shouldn't have access. I think they're still ill and they still deserve a quality of life."

Ms Catherwood is optimistic that medicinal cannabis is on its way to legalisation in New Zealand.

"I think with bills going into Parliament like Julie-Anne Genter's bill it will happen, it's only a matter of time. It's been happening all around the world."

Germany legalised medicinal cannabis this year, joining Ireland, Jamaica, Australia and more than 20 other countries.

When it comes to international drug laws, Ms Catherwood believes New Zealand should follow Portugal's example, which decriminalised all drugs in 2001 and treats possession as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

"Making drugs illegal doesn't stop people from taking them, so it's not helping," she says.

"If you look at the Portugal model... it wasn't actually the decriminalising that helped the reduction of harm from drugs, it was rechanneling the money that was being spent on prohibition into healthcare and providing access for these people to seek help".

Catherwood also admires the Canadian medical cannabis system.

"They have products available but they also understand that not every patient can afford those products, so they do allow access for carers to grow plants or patients to grow plants that are known to contain certain levels of certain chemicals."

Ms Catherwood cites the late trade unionist Helen Kelly, who campaigned for cannabis legalisation until her death from lung cancer last year, as an important figure.

"Helen was the inspiration for mum to start using it," she says.

"She was definitely a game-changer in terms of providing options for terminal patients... if Helen Kelly hadn't been in the media about cannabis, mum wouldn't have known about it."

The late trade unionist Helen Kelly was one of the most vocal supporters of cannabis legalisation in New Zealand.
The late trade unionist Helen Kelly was one of the most vocal supporters of cannabis legalisation in New Zealand.

The film has been met with criticism from those who Ms Catherwood says are "exaggerating the risks" of cannabis use.

"When critics say things to me, what they're saying makes me know that they haven't read the research."

She says current research shows no correlation between cannabis and cancer.

"But yet you still have a lot of people online saying 'oh, why would you give someone sick something that causes cancer, or why would you tell someone to smoke cannabis'," says Ms Catherwood.

"We're not necessarily encouraging people to use medicinal cannabis, we're encouraging doctors to have informed conversations with patients who are already using it. One in 20 people are already using it so we want to minimise harms and utilise the benefits.

"It's really frustrating because that's the kind of hysteria that we're trying to minimise, because it's not helpful to people. They need facts and solid science to help them get better. They don't need these old school misperceptions."

Ms Catherwood says she never wanted to go public with her mother's story and hasn't enjoyed the media attention she has received.

"To be honest, I'm just excited for everything to be over because I've got massive medical exams in six weeks. This has been extremely emotionally draining, and I never wanted to go public with this story. With the documentary, I never wanted to be the subject that was telling it.

"I would have avoided it if possible, but I knew to help people like mum, I had to put myself on the line."

Mum, Cannabis and Me premieres at 7pm tonight at the University of Otago, Wellington.