Opinion: Why medicinal cannabis patients are desperate for a yes vote in the referendum

  • Opinion
  • 16/06/2020

By Rebecca Reider

OPINION: It seems that as soon as anyone makes an intelligent argument for legalising cannabis, someone angry jumps out of the shadows to complain.

So perhaps it's no surprise that the Drug Foundation's new ad promoting a 'yes' vote in the cannabis referendum has now attracted over 50 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.

However, the ad's most controversial claim was absolutely correct. 

The video advert shows a bunch of respectable-looking New Zealanders who favour legalising cannabis. The ad's subjects sit on a tasteful grey couch, making eye contact with the camera as they list their reasons for a yes vote. 

"Better access for medicinal treatment," says a grey-haired man. 

This is the claim that has drawn the most fire, with Kate Baddock of the New Zealand Medical Association appearing on the news last week to slam the Drug Foundation, snapping and using words like "rubbish" and "misleading". 

As we watched one of the country's most vocal doctors rant against the Drug Foundation, medicinal cannabis users groaned in frustration. In reality, the ad attracting the complaints was one of the truest public voices to speak up for us in a long time. 

In reality, New Zealand medicinal cannabis patients, including myself, have been set up for limited and expensive legal access to the simple herb that brings so many of us relief. Therefore, most patients are now pinning our hopes on the referendum.

Medicinal cannabis has largely disappeared from the news radar since New Zealand's medicinal cannabis law was passed in the final weeks of 2018. But medicinal cannabis users have not disappeared. And although the law's new regulations came into force on April 1 of this year, the sad truth is that most patients who depend on cannabis are still being forced to live as criminals. 

Unless the referendum passes, many medicinal users will have little choice but to rely on black market cannabis -- exposing themselves to criminal charges and highly variable cannabis quality, the very things that the new law was supposed to protect us from.

For this reason, medicinal cannabis patients throughout New Zealand are now turning their eyes and voices toward passing the referendum. 

This is not just a fringe movement. Medicinal Cannabis Awareness New Zealand, the largest patient advocacy group and a registered charity, has come out in favour of the referendum. 

MCANZ is not exactly a bunch of hippies; its founder, Shane Le Brun, is a former corporal in the New Zealand Armed Forces. 

"I never thought I would be delving into advocating for broader drug law reform," Le Brun said recently. 

"But after having fought for medical access for the last five years, it's apparent that legalisation [via the referendum] solves two key issues, cost and choice."

Why is the referendum necessary? Didn't we just get a whole new law devoted to medicinal cannabis? Yes, we did get such a law. 

The problem is that the new medicinal cannabis regime seems designed for the comfort of nervous doctors rather than for the access of needy patients. 

The red tape is thick. 

Products must meet a pharmaceutical standard of manufacture (GMP), meaning patients will have to pay pharmaceutical-style prices -- without government subsidies. 

The New Zealand system is modelled on Australia's, where most patients remain dependent on the black market due to cost. 

Le Brun, who watches international developments closely, predicts legal medicinal cannabis could be nearly double the cost of black market cannabis: 

"Our pharmaceutical model of medical cannabis will likely follow Australia, where a medical ounce [of cannabis] costs over $600... which is hardly going to convince patients to seek legal access."

Unlike other countries such as the US and Canada, authorised patients in New Zealand will not have permission to choose their own cannabis products. 

Instead, a doctor will have to individually prescribe each cannabis preparation. Pharmacies will not even be able to stock medicinal cannabis products on site, instead being forced to make a special order for every prescription, further driving up costs. If patients are caught with homemade herbal medicines, they will still have their medicines confiscated, and they will still face prosecution. 

Since the law was passed, lawyers who defend medicinal cannabis patients have stayed busy, and that's unlikely to change any time soon. 

I can say from experience that living with the constant threat of police activity is not much fun. I myself watched three police officers search my house and seize all my medicines in 2015; they charged me with crimes totalling a potential nine years in prison.

The referendum, on the other hand, offers a ray of hope for patients. The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill -- the law that is the subject of the referendum -- has been designed with considerably more care than the medicinal cannabis legislation. 

Prices will be controlled to be competitive with the black market, ensuring that products will be affordable. 

That affordability will not come at the expense of safety, however; products will be tested for contaminants and potency. 'Social sharing' of small amounts of cannabis will also be allowed under the new law -- so unwell people who can't grow their own will be able to receive cannabis from friends and family. Currently, family members who help their loved ones access cannabis can still be charged as criminals.

As the referendum approaches in September, we will no doubt hear more fearmongering and alarmism from people who believe that this simple medicinal herb is some dangerous time-bomb that is going to destroy our minds or our society. 

But the opposite is true. Overseas, legalising cannabis has not led to tragic health outcomes or major societal problems. Youth cannabis use has not increased in any of the US states that have legalised the adult use of cannabis. This has been validated in numerous academic studies. 

Rather, the group that has increased its cannabis use the most under legalisation is people over the age of 65 -- many of whom are first-time users venturing into legal cannabis use to cope with the aches and pains of getting older.

The biggest change in countries that have legalised cannabis is not about changes in who uses cannabis. The biggest differences are that more users are accessing controlled-potency, safety-checked cannabis; and fewer nonviolent people are getting dragged through the court system. 

For all of these reasons, if the cannabis referendum passes this September, medicinal cannabis users will finally be able to celebrate the victory that we've been pleading for years.

Rebecca Reider is a medicinal cannabis user and advocate. She was the consumer representative on the Ministry of Health's Medicinal Cannabis Advisory Group to develop regulations for New Zealand's medicinal cannabis scheme.