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Medical Cannabis

February 7, 2018

It is a pity that there is so much mis-information, pseudo-science and disingenuous humbug surrounding the issue of medical cannabis. 

It is also unfortunate that the medical cannabis debate has been hijacked a number of times by those who simply want free access to the plant for smoking. That has produced an added barrier for those who have a genuine interest in the medical properties of the plant.

In spite of the claims by several groups there is no reliable, peer reviewed, science, so far, to show that cannabis, in any form cures anything. There is good evidence however to show that, properly administered, it is an effective sedative and pain inhibitor without many of the nasty side effects of conventional medications.

On that basis the Grey Power Federation Board established a policy, in November 2016, to support open access to cannabis based pharmaceuticals on prescription from a GP but not to support home grown cannabis for self medication. Foremer Association Health Minister Peter Dunne undertook to do that just prior to the general election.    

If the new Parliament had been bold enough last week to recognise that, both recent Bills addressing the matter of medical cannabis, one from the Government and one from the Green Party could have gone to the Health Select Committee and the public could have contributed to an important discussion on the subject.

As it turned out only the Government Bill will be considered and that Bill is far too restrictive and does not go anywhere near far enough.

The Government Bill would provide a defence against criminal prosecution for terminally ill people, within a year of dying, using cannabis. It would still be an offence to grow and supply cannabis. That is clearly a nonsense as there are many people with chronic, debilitating pain who would benefit from having access to cannabis based medicines. 

During the debate on both Bills it was very clearly that entrenched party politics and ignorance of the subject got in the way of what was supposed to have been a conscience vote. It is therefore very important to make a clear distinction between so called recreational cannabis and medical cannabis. They are worlds apart.

The known adverse effect of smoking cannabis, particularly by young people, seems to have got in the way of an informed discussion on the matter of medical cannabis. However in the same way that we do not allow people to have free access to opium but the medical profession has prescribed properly produced opioids for many years, we could still prohibit home grown cannabis for any purpose and at the same time have easy access to cannabis based pharmaceuticals. 

Those who want to legalise cannabis for smoking make much of the fact that alcohol and tobacco are probably much worse from a public health point of view. They may well be correct but having two such substances in society does not justify introducing a third.

On the other and the Green Party Bill proposed to allow people to grow their own cannabis or self-medication. There is no escaping the obvious fact that those who did grow their own cannabis, among the tomatoes and spuds, would never harvest the plants as they would quickly be stolen by neighbourhood pot smokers. For as long as it is illegal to grow and smoke cannabis in New Zealand it is naïve to suggest it can be grown at home for self-medication. 

It also ignores the fact that self-diagnosis and self-medication are hazardous at best and potentially fatal at worst. That is what we have a medical profession with several centuries of study and knowledge for.

There are a number of professionally produced cannabis based pharmaceuticals available on the international market, including from Australia, and at least one is available in New Zealand but at significant cost. To the disappointment of the pot smoking brigade these products do not produce a “high” as the psychoactive THC is taken out during manufacture. That renders properly produced medical cannabis no different to any other medication derived from plant material and it should be, and could be, treated as such.