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Medicinal cannabis: What now?

8 Aug 2018
This article was published 6 years ago. Content may no longer be relevant.

After reading close to 2000 submissions and listening to the heartfelt stories of 150 patients and caregivers, members of both Government and Opposition parties have let them all down by failing to reach an agreement on medicinal cannabis.

Many New Zealanders were desparately hoping for a compassionate response from the Health Select Committee, and their deep disappointment is justifiable. Especially given the level of support the New Zealand public has for medicinal cannabis – our latest commissioned poll shows 87% support for allowing people to use cannabis for pain relief, and a staggering 89% for terminal illnesses.

While it’s disappointing that the select committee was unable to find a way through the impasse, all is not lost. There will be a second reading of the bill, and there is a way forward. But it will involve putting party politics aside, and working for the good of patients.

The Drug Foundation understands how complex this issue is. However, a select committee is authorised to recommend changes to any bill they consider, and somehow they did not. The result is a pretty disgraceful failure of the democratic process.

As our Executive Director Ross Bell told Duncan Garner on the AM Show, “a lot of medical cannabis patients, who had never engaged in politics before, got brave, told their very powerful stories, in a process that’s quite alien to them, and they weren’t listened to.”

To recap, National has said they will not support the bill to a second reading, because it doesn’t contain enough detail around what the regulations would be. Further muddying the waters, they have now put forward their own bill.

To be fair, National’s bill does provide much more detail than the Government’s effort, which sought to pass the bill first and attend to the detail later. But we’re frustrated that they didn’t try to implement their suggestions through the Select Committee process.

So what now? Labour expects their bill will pass its second reading, with the support of the Greens and NZ First. Regulations will then be developed by the Ministry of Health, probably next year, which will set out how the scheme will look, how medicinal cannabis will be prescribed, and to whom.

We see no reason why this shouldn’t be possible within four-to-six months.

In preparing our own submission to the Select Committee, we ran public workshops and talked to over one hundred stakeholders including patients, support people, advocacy groups, service providers, herbalists and others.  It was clear that all supported a more compassionate approach than was set out in the Bill.

We have made recommendations on how to develop a workable regulatory system.  It draws on international experiences, including Canada, The Netherlands and New South Wales. We think that with some tweaks, the Canadian system would provide a good model for New Zealand.

Our recommendations:

  1. We would like to see the statutory defence expanded to include any “severe and debilitating” condition. It should also be extended to cover designated support people.
  2. Patients and their caregivers should be allowed to cultivate a limited number of plants, so patients don’t have to rely on the black market while they wait for pharmaceutical-grade products to become accessible.
  3. Doctors should be free to use their discretion in prescribing cannabis products, and should receive training to help inform their decisions. We support the proposal to convene a Medicinal Cannabis Advisory Committee to help doctors with guidelines and advice as soon as possible, and we recommend that it includes patient representation.
  4. Pharmaceutical-grade medicines must be made affordable, or patients should be financially supported to ensure they are able to access them.
  5. We wholeheartedly support the Government’s intention to facilitate domestic production of medicinal cannabis products.

Further reading:

Watch Ross Bell of the NZ Drug Foundation on the AM show

Read the final report of the Select Committee

See a clip from National’s press conference and read their news release and draft bill

Read the Green Party’s press release




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