The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Bill introduced on the 20th December 2017 is a baby step in the right direction, but a more compassionate approach towards patients is desperately needed.

These new measures are part of the new Government’s 100-day plan promise for medicinal cannabis legalisation in response to Jacinda Ardern replying “absolutely yes” during the TV3 political debate when asked if Labour would legalise medicinal cannabis.

This new Bill proposed by the Minister of Health, David Clark, says, “The measures are intended to improve access to medicinal cannabis and are guided by the principles of fairness, quality and safety, and compassion”.

It has three main changes to The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975:

  1. To introduce an exception and a statutory defence for terminally ill people to possess and use illicit cannabis and to possess a cannabis utensil; and
  2. To provide a regulation-making power to enable the setting of standards that products manufactured, imported, and supplied under licence must meet; and
  3. To amend Schedule 2 of the Act so that cannabidiol (CBD) and CBD products are no longer classed as controlled drugs.

So what does this really mean?

The Bill acknowledges the legal pathway for patients to obtain cannabis as a medicine from a doctor to access affordable cannabis products “remains problematic for New Zealanders”. In an attempt to solve this problem three main changes have been proposed. These changes within the Bill are outlined below and some implications of these changes are discussed.

  1. The first main change is “the provision of an exception and a statutory defence for terminally ill (less than 12 months to live) to possess and use illicit cannabis and possess cannabis utensils is intended as a compassionate measure until affordable quality products are available under a proposed medicinal cannabis scheme. It is well known that some terminally ill people are choosing to self-medicate with illicit cannabis. The provisions are not intended to encourage terminally ill people to use illicit cannabis, but to exempt from the legal prohibition terminally ill people who possess, use, or intend to use, illicit cannabis”.

This means in theory the arrest of a terminal patient is still possible, although it would be anticipated as unlikely. However, this is an unusual law, and legal advice highlighted it may contradict the New Zealand Bill of Rights 1990 section 25 (c), which states people have “the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to the law”.

According to the legal advice regarding this bill, it was highlighted that if a terminally ill patient is caught smoking cannabis and a police officer chooses to arrest them because a doctors letter cannot be produced, or simply because the police officer decides to arrest them, it imposes the burden of proof on vulnerable people in a criminal context, which is wholly inappropriate in a Western society.

This means a terminal patient can still be arrested and held by the police for a pending court appearance in circumstances where they have a complete defence.

It does nothing to help terminal patients to gain access cannabis as a medicine because their suppliers are still doing so illegally. Nor does it stop terminally ill individuals from being arrested; they can still be prosecuted but the defense prevents them from being convicted.

  1. The second change is that “The Bill also establishes a regulation-making power to set quality standards for domestically manufactured and imported cannabis products. Most cannabis products produced internationally do not meet the quality and efficacy requirements of therapeutic product regulators such as Medsafe. The ability to set and require minimum quality standards for cannabis products will improve patient safety and give medical practitioners confidence about the available products”.

This change doesn’t appear to have any other information available freely to the public. Do they mean we should be like Australia and wait almost 2 years for products to be researched and developed? Who is on this advisory board? What are their backgrounds? Or rather, what are their intentions?

There is talk of a NZ industry and this is where we need to move towards to supply affordable and accessible medicine. But patients still need to have the choice to grow this vegetable in their own backyard, because after all gardening is good for your health.

  1. The last main change of the Bill mentions “Cannabidiol (CBD) is a substance found in cannabis that has potential therapeutic value and few or no psychoactive properties. Removing CBD from Schedule 2, making it a prescription medicine only, reflects the advice of the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs. The Committee also advised that a CBD product could have an allowed contamination level of other natural cannabinoids of up to 2% of the total cannabinoid content. This acknowledges that no pure cannabidiol product made to reliable quality standards is currently available.

This is very much the same result as the CBD law change that was enacted on September 7th 2017. In terms of access it hasn’t changed anything for patients. CBD shouldn’t even be scheduled in the first place because it was wrongly placed on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 for being a chemical isomer of its psychoactive cousin, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which it is not. More recently, the World Health Organisation reported that CBD was non-addictive and has therapeutic value, so it’s about time that the New Zealand Government caught up with international research and apply evidence-based medicine fairly.

To summarise, this Bill aimed high but failed miserably. Perhaps someone should explain the difference between ‘Medicinal Cannabis’ and ‘Medical Cannabis’? Perhaps this subtle difference is where the disappointment in the “definitely yes” came from? Or perhaps Winston Peters is holding back progress?

One thing is for sure- this bill does little for the thousands of Kiwis with chronic illnesses who use cannabis as a medicine illegally. It also does nothing to provide access to medicinal cannabis for terminal patients and they may as well have been handed an empty cannabis jar. So would you say this medicinal cannabis bill enacts fairness, quality and safety, and compassion?

At the NORML 2017 AGM held in November they adopted a four-point model for good medicinal cannabis law reform:

  1. Patient focused: safe affordable access to botanical cannabis
  2. Immediate effect (not just a long-term development pathway)
  3. Domestic production: via licenced providers, including small scale providers (families & individuals)
  4. Self provision: choice to grow/make your own herbal remedy

The closest Bill in Parliament to fairness, quality and safety, and compassion to resemble this is Green Minister Julie-Anne Genter’s Bill that Chlöe Swarbrick is now nursing. This bill allows a patient with any terminal illness, chronic illness or a condition that a medical practitioner certifies can grow or nominate someone to grow cannabis. The first reading of this Bill is in February at the first members reading. Fingers crossed the Green party medicinal cannabis Bill gets the votes that it needs to get through. Sick individuals and their hope for a better quality of life depend on it.

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