Opinion: Politicians are still not getting it right with medicinal cannabis

By Rebecca Reider

OPINION: Yesterday was a gut-wrenching day for medicinal cannabis patients.

At the level of public opinion, our activism and pleas for compassion are working.

This week's latest poll numbers show nearly 90 percent of Kiwis now approve of medicinal cannabis use. Now even the National Party are warming up to the idea, proposing their own cannabis bill.

So we're winning, right?

Alas, at this point, we're not. We now have two medicinal cannabis bills on the table, one from Labour and one from National. They're both better than the status quo - but that's not hard, because the status quo is brutal. In reality, neither party's bill fully meets patients' needs.

It's not like MPs don't know what those needs are. Patients have made submissions and testified at Parliament by the hundreds. The Health Select Committee received over 1700 submissions earlier this year. A Green Party submission form generated another 1700 submissions on top of that.

I was among the many patients who battled health difficulties to get to Wellington for the hearings, in order to look lawmakers in the eyes and plead with them to improve Labour's medicinal cannabis bill.

Over and over, we asked for legal amnesty for all current medicinal users. Sitting there before us, MPs acted quite empathetic as they listened to stories of crippling pain and traumatic police dramas.

Yet after all that, both parties are still sticking to flawed reform proposals. Do they actually want to help us? Or are we a political football and politicians just want to seen to be doing something?

The Health Select Committee, which is split 50-50 between the two major political parties, has been unable to reach consensus. Releasing its report on Wednesday, the committee essentially threw up its hands and made no formal recommendations because the two parties can't agree with each other.

After all those impassioned submissions, Labour has recommended only minor improvements to their own medicinal cannabis bill. Their bill would protect terminal patients from prosecution but leaves all other detail to be decided by the Ministry of Health behind closed doors, so it's hard to know what the end result of this bill might be. It might be awesome, or it might be awful. I never thought I'd write the next four words, but National are correct to criticise the vagueness of Labour's bill.

Alas, National's medicinal cannabis bill, while it's much more specific than Labour's, falls short in the compassion department. National propose that patients be granted ID cards and be able to purchase cannabis products at a pharmacy; this is a very welcome development. The problem is, National want to set the medicinal production standard so tightly that it's debatable whether there would actually be affordable products on those pharmacy shelves.

Under the rules that National propose, cannabis products would be expensive and slow to come to market. This is because National's bill insists that all cannabis products must meet a standard known as GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices). GMP is basically pharmaceutical grade. The process of GMP certification for a manufacturer is a massive undertaking, and would add significant delays and costs for patients.

Shane Le Brun of the charity Medical Cannabis Awareness New Zealand estimates that National's quality standards would cause New Zealand patients to pay 70-90 percent more than medicinal cannabis patients in the US, and 30-50 percent more than Canadian patients. (Plus, patients in those countries can also grow their own to avoid costs altogether.)

Reality check: Cannabis is a herbal medicine. You don't have to turn it into a pharmaceutical product for it to work  just ask the thousands of patients already medicating themselves. You only need to turn it into a pharmaceutical product if you want an expensive corporate-dominated production system.

National's bill further embodies fear of the cannabis plant by stipulating that patients would only have access to manufactured medicines, rather than letting us have herbal cannabis itself. Never mind that long-running medicinal cannabis schemes in Canada and the US have allowed herbal cannabis for decades, with no evidence of harm. National are trying to cloak this proposal in fearmongering about smoking, but that's not a valid argument; inexpensive and safe vaporising devices mean that it's now easy for patients to inhale the medicinal compounds in raw cannabis without smoking it.

We are somehow going to get legal medicinal cannabis in New Zealand  that much is clear. But regardless of whose bill passes, there's still no guarantee of affordability for patients, or of timeliness. Documents released by the Ministry of Health under the Official Information Act indicate that even if Labour's bill passes, officials don't expect to have a legal medicinal cannabis programme up and running until 2020.

At this point, it seems that many legitimate patients are likely to remain criminals until New Zealand voters do what politicians are afraid to, and legalise cannabis for everyone in a referendum.

In the meantime, patients will keep medicating illegally, supporting each other, telling our stories  and appreciating the fact that we live in a country where the vast majority of our fellow citizens want us to be well and legal, even if the politicians haven't yet gotten it right.

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.