Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.
This week Helen Kelly had her official request for medicinal cannabis deferred by the Ministry of Health. This has renewed debate about whether the Government’s procedures for dealing with such requests are working or major reform is required.
Former CTU president Helen Kelly has mounted a campaign that seeks to reform the government’s procedures over medicinal cannabis. Kelly has blogged about her predicament and campaign – see: Life and death and Cannabis. This must-read post sets out her problems with getting appropriate treatment.
Blogger Russell Brown is strongly critical of what he believes are unreasonable and poorly thought out bureaucratic hoops applicants must jump through to meet the Ministry of Health’s criteria – see his blog post, Helen Kelly’s letter.
Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne has responded to such criticism saying “The application has… been deferred, not declined, by the ministry, until it receives the information it had requested. The delay in resolving this case, rests, for whatever reason, with the oncologist’s ongoing lack of response” – see Jo Moir’s Former union boss given two months to live – nearly a year ago.
The only approved medicinal cannabis in New Zealand is the mouth spray Sativex. It is not funded by Pharmac and costs over $1000 a month. Any other product must be approved by Dunne. Moir reports that “As of January 27, the ministry had received 120 applications for medicinal cannabis, of which 105 have been approved. Another five are still in progress and 10 have not been granted for various reasons including the application being withdrawn, cancelled, declined or incomplete.”
Peter Dunne continues to receive a lot of flak for his role in the process, especially in relation to Helen Kelly’s request. But not everyone is laying the blame entirely at Dunne’s feet. In his post, Kia kaha, Helen Kelly, Russell Brown argues that the Minister is far from being the main problem: “Dunne is habitually, and often unfairly, pilloried in these matters. Yet in delivering the new National Drug Policy last year, he had to carefully navigate the National government’s cynical and entirely political stance on drug law reform to become the first minister to acknowledge that a significant portion of the harm from illicit drugs lies in the laws that make them illicit. Dunne is also constrained by the official advice he receives.”
See also Brown’s blog post, A dramatic and unremarkable decision. Notably, in the comments section, the Drugs Foundation CEO, Ross Bell, says “I think what this case highlighted is that our Medicines Act can work really well, in that the minister has the ability to make these decisions. It also shows that, fundamentally, we don’t need to change our drug laws to allow medical cannabis (we do need to change laws for lots of other reasons though). All we simply need to do is have a much wider range of medpot products regulated under medicines law (and then have those fully subsidised).”
The Politics of medicinal marijuana
But shouldn’t the system be more straightforward? After all, on the face of it, the decision to allow access to medicinal marijuana for those in need should be simple. So “Why are the politics so hard?” asks Danyl Mclauchlan – see his blog post: Politics and meta-messages.
Mclauchlan says it’s a question that has baffled him for a while: “The answer, I think, is something experienced politicians know instinctively, which is that when you take a position on an issue and make a statement about it, you actually send two messages to the voters. There’s the first, surface message, which in the case of medical marijuana would be about compassion and scientific evidence and easing suffering and so on, and the meta-message, which is that you’re partly legalising pot and this makes you a pot-head and a hippy etc. And for many, many voters it is the meta-message, operating on a mostly subconscious basis that is the more powerful and influences their perceptions of the politician or the party sending it.”
If the Government is really so concerned about public opinion, then Helen Kelly says it’s within their power to find out how the public feels – see Michael Forbes’ Helen Kelly wants referendum on legalising cannabis at the next election. Kelly says she has spoken with a number of MPs who support her call for a referendum in 2017.
A Press editorial says this call for a referendum is ultimately “misdirected” – see: Reform, not referendum, needed on medicinal drug laws. The editorial argues, while it’s useful for raising awareness of the issue, “A referendum is unnecessary. Medicinal cannabis use is not a conscience issue, it is a clinical one. Any reform should be guided by research and the advice of medical experts rather than a nationwide poll.” The newspaper says that if the hurdle is a lack of high-quality research, then “get it”.
The issue is obviously not a classic left-right ideological one. Jenesa Jeram of the right-wing think tank The New Zealand Initiative says medical marijuana is a rare case where greater government regulation is desirable on safety grounds – see her column, I agree with Helen Kelly.
The views of politicians
Moved by the plight of Nelson teenager Alex Renton, Labour’s West Coast MP Damien O’Connor began work last year on a private member’s bill designed to improve access to medicinal cannabis – see: Laura Mills’ O’Connor drafting medicinal cannabis Bill.
Stressing that “he was not advocating the decriminalisation of cannabis”, O’Connor says he has “believed in the benefits of medicinal cannabis since the 2000s, when he was on a select committee which backed its use” and he believes wider public opinion is now favourable towards allowing its use.
This seems borne out by the results of a Herald DigiPoll from September that found 70% want medical pot legal. Seventy per cent of respondents said “they wanted the drug legalised only for medicinal use under strict conditions. Fifteen per cent wanted it kept illegal for all uses and 13 per cent wanted it legalised for all uses.”
In the midst of attempts by Alex Renton’s family to secure permission for medicinal cannabis to be used in his treatment, Jo Moir reported on the views of MPs – see: DHB delays treatment application for teenager in coma. According to this, Andrew Little “agrees with O’Connor that it was time for a debate, and would support a bill on the matter”. And Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei, Act leader David Seymour and Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox were also “open to a debate on the issue.”
Winston Peters appeared more hesitant saying: “nobody could stop a debate in Parliament but he’d want to be sure all other legal options were exhausted before considering granting access to medicinal marijuana.”
A survey of other MP views is also found in Isaac Davison’s MPs back calls for medicinal marijuana, with “many saying they would vote in support of improved access to medicinal cannabis if a conscience vote was held”. Those clearly in favour of reform included National’s Maggie Barry and Chester Borrows, and Labour’s Annette King and Iain Lees-Galloway. “Labour MPs Kelvin Davis, Phil Goff, and Phil Twyford all said they would probably support a law change, while others including David Shearer said the law should at least be reviewed.”
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett came down “firmly against decriminalisation”, even for medical purposes: “I would absolutely be anti any loosening of our cannabis laws. Children’s lives are completely destroyed by their parents’ use of cannabis.” Gerry Brownlee and Paul Goldsmith were “likely to oppose” a law change and Hekia Parata was undecided.
John Key was also opposed. And in Russell Brown’s blog post, Helen Kelly’s letter, he reports on the Prime Minister being asked about medical marijuana at a school assembly, and replying: “This is the fundamental message. Drugs are bad for you.”
Helen Kelly has said the issue of whether or not cannabis should be decriminalised could also be addressed at the 2017 election. That’s certainly the referendum Waikato law professor Alexander Gillespie thinks New Zealand should be having – see his opinion piece, Cannabis debate more urgent than nation’s flag. He argues that the health risks of marijuana use are real, including addiction, increased risk of accidents and mental illness, particularly for individuals genetically predisposed to particular mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.
But Gillespie also says “The difficulty is that if we use the test of risk as the benchmark for what should be prohibited, then tobacco, alcohol and gambling should also be banned.” He says cannabis laws as they stand are unrealistic and mean illegal markets get rich while the wider community takes the impact.
The must-read item on New Zealand’s drug laws is Philip Matthews’ Drug reform is not a Dunne deal, based on a fascinating interview with New Zealand Drug Foundation CEO Ross Bell.
Matthews writes: “The irony is that decriminalisation of drugs can reduce harms more effectively than prohibition. This is where the Drug Foundation now finds itself. Bell’s current angle is that our drug law turns 40 this year and is showing its age. Time for an overhaul.”
Now that “the US has fallen”, Bell says there are “some inevitabilities now” in terms of drug law reform in this country and talks about some of the options, including his opinion that we already had the answer in the Psychoactive Substances Act. He says the “bizarre” goings on around that legislation have probably “scared the horses for a while” and the politicians are probably right in their instinct to tread very carefully on drug law reform.
Of course liberalisation could be good business too – even in terms of medicinal marijuana. Jamie Gray reports today on horticulture expert Mike Nichols’ concerns that NZ could miss boat on medical cannabis exports. Writing in NZGrower the ex-Massey University lecturer said NZ should not sit by and watch an opportunity to develop an export industry in medicinal cannabis go the same way as the opium poppy industry.
Finally, if you would like to support Helen Kelly’s application to use cannabis oil in her cancer treatment, you can sign the online petition, which currently has about 3500 supporters – go to: #Help4Helen Permission 4 Helen Kelly 2 use a cannabis oil 2 help control her pain & nausea.