We won, sort of: A medicinal cannabis user at yesterday’s historic vote

The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill passed its third reading in Parliament, ushering in the partial decriminalisation of medicinal cannabis use. Longtime user and activist Rebecca Reider was there.

A few years ago, deep in the throes of medicinal cannabis activism under an intransigent National government, I started trying to visualise our eventual victory party. I needed to believe that we could win one day. It would be like the triumph of the Marriage Equality bill, I imagined. The gallery of Parliament would be full; all of us medicinal cannabis patients would be there together; we’d rise up and sing at the end, our voices coalescing in a harmony of justice. Maybe instead of a waiata, we’d sing a Bob Marley song.

That was definitely not the scene yesterday.

It was a historic day, technically speaking. Labour’s Medicinal Cannabis Amendment Bill passed its final reading in Parliament, opening the way to a legal medicinal cannabis industry in this country.

But it wasn’t the victory party of my dreams. There were fewer than 30 people in the public gallery to watch the bill pass. In contrast, earlier this year, at the first reading of Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick’s more ambitious medicinal cannabis bill, the gallery was packed to overflowing with fans who had to be shushed for cheering too loudly. Yet that bill was voted down, and we were left with Labour’s more cautious bill that has not inspired many medicinal cannabis patients.

I was hoping to cry tears of joy in Parliament yesterday anyway. Instead the closest I got to tears was when Chlöe Swarbrick spoke, turning upward to face the spectators in the balcony, acknowledging all the work by campaigners to get to this point and telling us: “I am sorry that we could not make this bill everything that you wanted it to be.”

One obstacle to total celebration is that there are many unknowns as to how the new law will play out. Who will access cannabis, and how, all depends on regulations that will be set over the next 12 months. It could be a sensible regime like Canada’s, or a red tape nightmare like Australia’s.

And of course, most patients will still live in illegality until those regulations are defined and implemented. Under the new law, only dying people in “palliation” will have an immediate defence against criminal charges. At the Health Select Committee hearings on this bill, patient after patient stood up and asked MPs to extend the legal defence and protect us all – to no avail. It was hard to sit and listen to Labour MPs in the House yesterday thank us for our heartfelt submissions, when they themselves had not acted on those submissions. When I walked out of the Beehive after the bill passed, the herbal medicines in my backpack were no less illegal than they were when I walked in.

It’s tricky, spiritually, to be an activist sometimes. Always working for something better can leave one feeling perpetually at war with reality, dissatisfied. This is not necessarily a happy way to live. Perhaps we need to get better at savouring progress, even when utopia isn’t here yet.

So I’m carving out some mental space to marvel. It’s just over three years since Helen Kelly first announced on TV that she was using illicit medicinal cannabis to cope with cancer. I joined the movement some months later after barely escaping a criminal conviction myself; there still weren’t many of us speaking out. But by the time the submission process for the Medicinal Cannabis Amendment Bill rolled around this year, Parliamentary staff were at pains to figure out what to do with hundreds of people admitting to illegal activity in their submissions.

Our collective voices have caused a change in the law, in a few years’ time.

This is all the more amazing because sick and disabled people – often cast to the margins, the people our society doesn’t want to look at – have starred in this debate.

For me, the experience of ten-plus years of chronic illness had always been one of shame, of not wanting to burden people who didn’t really want to know about my suffering. But in this campaign, for many of us, suffering became not a burden but a platform. The voices of chronically ill and dying people have been front and centre. Journalists have portrayed us honourably. When else has the media so positively embraced people who state that they are breaking the law?

These human stories caused a shift of national opinion from around 50% public approval of medicinal cannabis a few years ago, to around 80% in more recent polls – compelling the coalition government to promise action.

Together we can change things. It may take a lot longer than we hoped; we may not get the exact result (or victory party) we hoped for. But persistent, engaging storytelling does work.

As much as some of us would love the medicinal cannabis campaign to be over, it’s not. One new bit of news dropped during the parliamentary debate yesterday, when Minister David Clark announced that the Ministry of Health will release a consultation paper in the new year, asking for public input on the design of the medicinal cannabis regulations. So patients and caregivers will have to get vocal once again.

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I also expect that many medicinal patients will now shift our energies to campaigning for the referendum on full legalisation of cannabis. One of the biggest disappointments of the new law is that there is no provision for patients and caregivers to grow our own medicine. This leaves us lagging well behind patient rights in Canada and much of the US. But could the referendum fix this by just granting home-growing rights to everyone?

Home growing is a lifeline for many medicinal users. Chronically ill people often don’t have much money; why should anyone have to buy from a large cannabis corporation when they could just grow it safely in their own backyard?

The National Party’s performance in the debate yesterday also deserves a mention. There was an impressive level of unhinged ranting. Three National MPs, including Simon Bridges, declared that a major danger with the government’s bill is that dying people could go smoke cannabis outside schools. I don’t know a lot of dying people, but I hadn’t heard before that smoking at schools was one of their main hobbies.

Still, even the National MPs, in full obstruction mode, had to pay lip service to medicinal cannabis. They had to find ways to oppose the bill while still claiming to be compassionate people who believe cannabis is medicinal. This was some of the clearest evidence that our story has won. And in time, perhaps, the law will finish catching up. I’m visioning our victory party for the referendum now.


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