Government's medicinal cannabis bill doesn't go far enough

  • Long Read
  • 21/12/2017

Rebecca Reider uses medicinal cannabis for chronic pain. After being prosecuted and discharged without conviction in 2016, she became the first patient in recent history to legally possess raw cannabis in New Zealand, thanks to an import exemption in the Misuse of Drugs Act. The exemption was later blocked by the National Government.

OPINION: What would Helen Kelly* do? That phrase has become a rallying cry recently in the medicinal cannabis community, as we nervously wait for the Labour Government to announce its new policy.

Since Helen is not here to speak out now, I'm going to guess she might have reacted to Labour’s proposed law similarly to many of us cannabis patients. She'd celebrate the progress, but speak up loudly for those whom this law will not serve and demand better.

On the one hand, we are at an historic moment. Finally, a New Zealand Government has declared we deserve a compassionate legal framework that recognises cannabis as a legitimate medicine. This glowing moment belongs to Helen and to all the other sick people who have followed in her footsteps to speak up about our health needs, in spite of the grave risks of doing so.

On the other hand, the law that's been proposed, while a good start, is also deeply flawed. I believe Helen would have been proud of Labour for proposing it, but would also have forcefully insisted that her party offer more.

Much of the devil will be in details yet to be worked out. The law will enable a domestic New Zealand cannabis industry to be set up and this is excellent news for patients.

However, we don't yet know whether this will be an industry based around pricey pharmaceutical-style products, or whether it will include the numerous artisanal growers and herbal medicine-makers already serving sick people across New Zealand. Will this be a corporation's law or a people's law?

Time will tell and it may depend on who gets to sit at the table as part of the advisory group the Government will set up to answer these questions.

The Minister of Health said yesterday that if we follow Australia's example, we could have products available in two years. But medicinal cannabis patients hope that New Zealand will not follow Australia's example, which has been a disaster. Australia has followed a big-money model focused on corporate growing. Nearly two years on, fewer than 200 patients have legal access, and patients and their compassionate suppliers are still being prosecuted.

We hope instead that the Ministry will look to models such as Canada, where licensed producers provide affordable cannabis to patients, and where patients' right to grow their own cannabis is enshrined as a human right. Growing cannabis and turning it into a herbal medicine is not rocket science - unless excessive government regulations make it so.

Ironically, the provision in the proposed law perhaps causing the most outrage is a provision purportedly made in the spirit of compassion: the proposal that terminally ill patients in their last 12 months of life will not be prosecuted for consuming illegal cannabis.

First, the 12-month window requires a wildly unscientific determination. Doctors' predictions are often wrong - in the case of cancer patients, the cannabinoid compound THC has been proven to slow tumour growth. Helen herself was at one point given two months to live, but stuck around nearly two more years.

Moreover, the terminal illness clause is an ethical mess. Why should someone be allowed herbal cannabis if they're about to die, but not if they're consigned to a life of intractable chronic pain with no end in sight? Helen Kelly would have benefitted from this provision personally, but I believe she would also have opposed its injustice. People with multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, epilepsy and other conditions are feeling slapped in the face.

Moreover, those illegally supplying terminal patients with medicine would still be convicted of crimes. My friend's mother, a terminal cancer patient, cheered the news yesterday. But where will she get her medicine? Rose Renton used to supply this woman with cannabis products, but Rose, along with compassionate suppliers across New Zealand, is currently being prosecuted.

Perhaps Rose will one day get some sort of medal for her work to advance legal cannabis in New Zealand, but for now she's being threatened with a 14-year prison term instead.

There is a way out of this mess. The media has hinted Labour's legislation could have been stronger, but was weakened by the preferences of coalition partner New Zealand First.

Meanwhile, a more patient-focused piece of legislation will also be making its way through Parliament early next year - Green MP Chloe Swarbrick's Members Bill (originally written by Julie Anne Genter) would make it legal for any patient with a doctor's approval to possess and grow their own cannabis.

This is a crucial human rights provision. Cannabis is unlikely to be subsidised by Pharmac any time soon, because years of pharmaceutical clinical trials are required for such funding. Meanwhile, many of us with health challenges live on low incomes or benefits, and cannot afford unsubsidised medicines. Growing our own medicine is infinitely cheaper. For this reason, until we can legally grow our own cannabis or designate someone to grow it for us, patients across Aotearoa are likely to remain criminals.

In the new year, I expect cannabis patients and our allies will be vigorously campaigning across party lines to keep Swarbrick's bill alive. Together, the Government bill and Swarbrick's bill could provide a complete model for a responsible, respectful medicinal cannabis regime that New Zealanders could be proud of.

I don't think Helen Kelly would have rested until all medicinal cannabis patients were guaranteed freedom from prosecution. So we won't rest either.

*Helen Kelly was president of the NZ Council of Trade Unions, who died of cancer last October, after campaigning for medicinal use of cannabis.