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Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick speaks in Parliament in support of the medicinal cannabis bill. Fellow Green MP Julie Anne Genter, who introduced the bill, is sitting behind.
Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick speaks in Parliament in support of the medicinal cannabis bill. Fellow Green MP Julie Anne Genter, who introduced the bill, is sitting behind.

PoliticsFebruary 13, 2018

A medicinal marijuana patient watches the endless, infuriating legalisation debate

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick speaks in Parliament in support of the medicinal cannabis bill. Fellow Green MP Julie Anne Genter, who introduced the bill, is sitting behind.
Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick speaks in Parliament in support of the medicinal cannabis bill. Fellow Green MP Julie Anne Genter, who introduced the bill, is sitting behind.

The demise of the Chlöe Swarbrick-championed grow-your-own cannabis bill ended a rollercoaster couple of weeks for proponents of law reform. Rebecca Reider looks at what’s been achieved, and how far legalisation efforts still have to go.

For me, and for many of my fellow medicinal cannabis patients, the last several weeks have offered an odd combination of jubilation and rage.

The joy emerges when I step back from policy discussions and remind myself how dramatically we have won the public conversation. Barely two years after Helen Kelly and Alex Renton blazed across the horizon as our first public patients, the new Labour-led government rocked into office promising to legalise medicinal cannabis.

The media, and seemingly the nation as a whole, are firmly on our side. Normally staid Radio NZ broadcasters now welcome me onto news shows by telling me how disappointed I must be in the weakness of the new government’s proposed legislation. Everyone gets it!

And yet, one group of 120 individuals still doesn’t entirely get it. The problem, of course, is that those 120 individuals are Members of Parliament.

Before discussing their disease, a note about mine: Eleven years ago, I developed a full-body chronic pain condition that eventually mystified over 20 doctors. The discovery that cannabis relieved my symptoms was an accident. On a trip to San Francisco, someone gave me a cannabis truffle to eat. The next morning, I noticed that a muscle spasm that had been plaguing my back for weeks, was completely gone. This plant wasn’t just a painkiller; it was a healer.

Eating cannabis oil soon became my off-ramp from major pain episodes. Years later, I learned to experiment with varying ratios of THC and CBD to get an optimal effect. I’ve also used a vaporiser to inhale the compounds from raw cannabis for faster relief. These tactics have saved me in some very rough times.

But for all of this, I am considered a criminal – and might continue to be, unless the flawed legislation currently before Parliament is improved.

At the end of January, we finally got to hear where MPs’ heads are at. It was both inspiring and devastating. Two medicinal cannabis bills came up for their first readings – one cautious bill proposed by the government, and one more ambitious, patient-centred Member’s Bill from the Greens, written by Julie Anne Genter and later championed by Chlöe Swarbrick.

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick discusses her medicinal cannabis bill on TVNZ One News. Photo: screengrab

Watching the two debates was surreal. The first night, when MPs debated the government bill, the entire House agreed that we need a new medicinal cannabis regime. The unaniminity was beautiful to behold. It may have just been cynical point-scoring, but even National MPs slammed the government bill’s vagueness, and spoke up for more comprehensive cannabis access.

Alas, after that first high, the following night’s debate, on the Greens’ grow-your-own-medicine bill, was a bitter reality check.

Now that MPs had clean consciences from voting for an incredibly weak bill the night before, a virulent canna-phobia bug spread across the House to defeat the Green bill. National, New Zealand First, and even a few Labour MPs ranted about the dangers of letting patients actually possess and (gasp!) grow cannabis, as though this were not already happening unproblematically in much larger countries. It will harm the children! It will make people psychotic! There’s not enough research! (Multiple MPs raised each of these worries; each has been soundly disproven in overseas jurisdictions.)

More shockingly, many MPs seemed not to have enrolled in Cannabis Science 101 – or even glanced at the syllabus. In parliamentary debate, MPs from National, Labour and New Zealand First all got confused about the two main therapeutic cannabinoid compounds, CBD and THC. We heard hilariously incorrect guesses at what CBD stands for and how to say it. MPs from all three parties wrongly declared that CBD is therapeutic, but that THC is bad and psychoactive. This is such a basic point. THC and CBD are both therapeutic and have different effects. Some patients need CBD alone, particularly for epilepsy; but most patients either need THC, or need THC and CBD in combination.

The panic over THC was bizarre. Yes, THC makes people feel happy, and can even provoke giggling (insert shock and horror here). But it’s never killed anyone. Meanwhile, doctors routinely prescribe opiate painkillers that are chemically addictive, fog the mind, are easily abused, and do kill people – and no one in Parliament seemed to be having a moral panic about that at all.

That said, I do believe patients still have reason to hope. We have one big chance to steer MPs in a better direction: the Select Committee process, where the government cannabis bill will now be refined. Members of the Health Select Committee, from both Labour and National, have already declared that the bill definitely needs work.

Patients and our allies will have to hold them to their word. The call for public submissions to the committee opened last week, with a fast-approaching deadline of March 21.

Some of the bill is too vague to argue with. It will set up a regulatory authority, but is silent on what the production standards will be, whether raw cannabis itself will be allowed, and who will be allowed to grow it. We will fight for it to be treated as a widely grown herbal medicine and not a pharmaceutical, but it’s not clear if that will be decided in the bill itself, or in ensuing regulations outside the bounds of the democratic process.

Therefore, much of the coming debate is likely to centre on the most controversial proposal in the bill: a court defence for terminally ill patients in their last 12 months of life.

The government’s proposal to grant amnesty to the terminally ill – but not anyone else – must be one of the sloppier legislative proposals in recent history. Patients are outraged, and deserve to be. A fundamental principle of the rule of law is that we all have the same human rights. All sick people deserve medicine, and immediate immunity from police action. It’s hard to think of any other issue where we grant special rights to someone once a doctor decides they are dying.

The thorny issues around the terminal provision don’t stop there. How do we determine who has 12 months to live? Where are these unicorn-like dying people supposed to get their cannabis, unless we give amnesty to compassionate growers as well?

The media have seized on these points, but have been slow to notice another damning weakness: If the bill were to pass in its current form, police could still confiscate a dying person’s medicine. The patient would have a defence in court – but they could still be subjected to the traumas of police search and prosecution.

Having been through that myself two years ago, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. The whole country thought I’d won my case, because a judge discharged me without conviction. But I still felt like I’d lost, because the police had gotten away with invading my home, taking my medicine, and leaving me a $2000 legal bill. “Does this mean the police have to give your marijuana back?” my mother asked after the verdict. Yeah, right.

Legislators should not be so quick to limit which patients get access to cannabis. The endocannabinoid system is the largest neurotransmitter system in the human body. These are the receptors that cannabinoid compounds latch onto, and that is why cannabis affects so many different conditions: not just pain but nausea, neurodegenerative diseases, PTSD, epilepsy. The list of conditions is nearly endless.

Fortunately, the pain of this debate will not be endless. With the submission process now open, patients, caregivers and our supporters will be making our voices heard. We know that the nation is on our side. Now we just have to help that skittish group of 120 people in Wellington to catch up – quickly.

Submissions on the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill are open on the Parliament website now. NORML NZ has prepared a guide to effective submissions and the NZ Drug Foundation is running a workshop tour to encourage submitters.

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