Opinion: National's cannabis bill: Business up front, disappointment down the back

cannabis medical and oil extract
Photo credit: Getty.

OPINION: After nine years of blocking any real reform under Peter Dunne, National has finally made some internal progress.

Shane Reti's Bill is both inspired and deficient in equal measure, and yet it is the most comprehensive piece of legislation we have seen on the issue.  To top it all off, it comes from the National Party - which gives the patient community a healthy dose of cynicism.

At the "front end" the execution is almost flawless, the prescribing regime and dispensing system is a step beyond what was thought possible for a National party to support, as card access is more liberal than the prescribed product route. Dr Reti and those who worked with him can be commended for getting that across the line in the National Caucus.

The prescribing is a master-stroke, and from the outset he has properly engaged with prescribers and the Pharmacy Guild. It shows a level of leadership on this issue far in advance of the Health Minister, who appears to have been asleep at the wheel in comparison.

There are concerns about a group of professional bodies defining the criteria for qualifying with no formal training on medical cannabis - the typical activist or advocate displays far more clinical knowledge than general practitioners.

But the access card and dispensing process is light on paperwork for GPs, bypasses potential bias and, most importantly, it retains dispensing within the medical system, as opposed to the dispensary technician or "bud-tender" used in most US states.

The "back end", however, needs more work and consultation with industry. Some of the requirements would provide significant barriers to both of the main companies vying for this nascent industry.

Helius is located in an industrial site well inside the five kilometre distance prohibited between residential areas and cannabis facilities. This is not an issue in other jurisdictions if sufficient checks are in place.

Hikurangi, on the other hand, wants to tap into the latent skills in the local region offering a chance for growers to leave the illicit market and "step into the light" as it were. This Bill also prevents that, and it is unclear if it takes into account the Clean Slate Act.

What is most disheartening for patients, however, is that in trying to obtain consensus the party has dropped any form of compassionate clause in the short term to provide patients with protection from the police, which is sorely needed.

Last year around election time it felt like the police were declaring war on medical cannabis users while no one was watching - quadriplegics were raided, triple amputees prosecuted, and I was personally targeted.  Personally, being on the receiving end of police action certainly reshaped my views. I escaped conviction and media attention due to underhanded tactics by the police, but others were not so lucky.

Discretion around prosecution, diversion and sentencing is highly variable, due to the regional attitudes of police, the compassion of judges and the color of your skin. It is possible, with the right lawyer, to get discharged without conviction for offences of importing Class B cannabis preparations, and cultivating dozens of plants.

Offering a medical necessity defense to the Crimes Act is the single biggest change that National could do to win over significant support from the patient community. It is not an explicit endorsement for patients to go illicit, but is an essential tool for the police and the courts to exercise their discretion more uniformly, and follow the will of the people - which is clearly far beyond what National can stomach.

Shane Le Brun is a coordinator for Medical Cannabis Awareness NZ.

Newshub Nation.

Watch Newshub Nation 9:30am Saturday/10am Sunday on TV3, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.