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April 28, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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Medicinal Marijuana

Marijuana prohibition is an injustice. It criminalises the majority of our nation’s adults, discourages those who abuse the drug from seeking help, drains around $50 million per annum from our policing budget and holds up the court system – last year almost 15,000 New Zealanders were apprehended for marijuana ‘crimes’.

Unfortunately, commonly held prejudices against drug users mean this situation will not change in the near future. Recreational users such as myself will remain criminalised as long as the media profits from selling beat-up stories about drugs. However, while we are victimised by this law, we do not suffer anywhere near as much as medicinal users, who have to smoke pot because it is the only medicine that works for them. Those of us who use recreationally need to put our own needs aside, while we fight to help medicinal users, whose needs are so much greater. At the Christchurch District Court in November 2004, Judge David Holderness sentenced Neville Yates (an amputee who suffers brain damage from an accident when he was 14) to five months’ jail for growing cannabis, despite the prosecutor and probation officer recommending a non-custodial sentence.

In June 2006, Green MP Metiria Turei’s private members bill the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill was drawn from the ballot. The Bill would allow patients who suffer from any one of a schedule of 22 illnesses to apply for a Medicinal Cannabis Identification Card. The card holder would then be allowed to cultivate, possess and consume an amount of marijuana agreed upon with their practitioner. If the card holder was unable to cultivate their own cannabis, they would be able to designate a grower who, provided they could prove themselves “of good moral character”, would hold a Designated Agent Identification Card and supply the patient with their medicine.

While the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 allows patients to appeal to the Minister of Health for an exemption from prohibition, no exemption has ever been given, despite the advice of several applicants’ GPs. The Bill would bypass both the politicians and pharmaceutical companies, by asking patients to be responsible for cultivating their own medicine. However, despite it being drawn two years ago, the Bill has not even had its first reading. Turei told Salient that she has had to delay the Bill – even removing it from the order paper (which lists parliamentary business in the order in which it will be dealt with) for several months – because she does not have enough support from other MPs to get it through even to Select Committee, where it would be refined and amended before a final vote.

Turei said that while it is “unusual” for a bill to sit for so long “because most MPs will let their bills fail,” she does not want the Bill to simply fail the first time it is read out. “We relied on chance to get the Bill in, and it finally got picked… So the plan is just to keep it on the order paper so it doesn’t die, because if I let it get voted down then I’d have to do another members bill, and who knows when it would come up again.” Only Act have pledged to vote with the Greens during the Bill’s first reading. Turei says that many MPs believe medicinal marijuana is “the ‘thin end of the wedge’ for recreational use” because they “don’t understand that it does have a proven scientific use.” Act’s Health Spokesperson Heather Roy says the Bill is “absolutely the right thing to do” but is not surprised other parties have simply not looked at the evidence in support of marijuana’s medicinal benefits.

A long history of treatment
The first recorded use of cannabis medicines in Aotearoa was by Sister Mary Joseph Aubert, who opened a health centre and orphanage at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River in 1883, and eventually marketed her cannabis tinctures to the public via the New Zealand Drug Company.

In 1928, following US-based scare campaigns against Mexican hash smokers, New Zealand’s Dangerous Drugs Regulations restricted Indian hemp to medical use only. However, when the 1954 UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs declared marijuana of no medicinal value, the WHO circumscribed the international trade in Indian hemp medicines, effectively ending their availability. Consequently, research into the value of marijuana as a medicine has been severely restricted, although the evidence has nevertheless accumulated. In 1965, Israeli chemist Dr Raphael Mechoulam discovered marijuana’s psychoactive element, THC. In the early 90s, a group of scientists discovered a natural cannabinoid receptor system in the human brain.

Meanwhile, study upon study has confirmed the benefits of THC for relieving a number of illnesses. This year, the American College of Physicians (an association of 124,000 doctors) called on their government to sanction the medicinal use of marijuana, citing the drug’s proven value in treating AIDS-related weight loss (as it increases appetite) and chemotherapy-induced nausea (as it suppresses vomiting). Marijuana is also a proven treatment for glaucoma as it lowers the intraocular pressure in the eye. Responding to such evidence, California passed Proposition 215 legalising medicinal use in 1996. Locally, Body Positive, which supports HIV/AIDS sufferers, has lobbied the government to allow those in serious pain to be allowed relief. Indeed, our nation lags behind most of the developed world in approving the medicinal use of marijuana.

So why won’t the government allow patients to use their medicine?
Metiria Turei told us that the Labour party will not support her bill because they are currently investigating Sativex as an alternative. Sativex is an under-tongue whole-cannabis spray, developed in 2003 by GW Parmaceuticals, which is used to treat neuropathic pain and multiple sclerosis symptoms. However, a recent Columbia University study discovered that smoked cannabis is eight times more effective than a similar synthetic THC pharmaceutical, Marinol, for treating AIDS wasting syndrome. Furthermore, Turei notes that Sativex would cost around $300 per week, which nine out of ten patients could not afford.

The most fanatically anti-marijuana parties, such as United Future, usually scoff at the scientific evidence for medicinal marijuana, and claim that there are many alternative painrelieving drugs. But as Turei points out, many of these drugs have even worse side-effects than marijuana. In 2004, Vioxx, a painkiller heavily marketed by Merck with a market of 80 million patients, was withdrawn after it was linked with heart attacks: it is estimated that Vioxx caused 140,000 heart attacks, 44 per cent of them fatal. Body Positive’s Bruce Kilmister told the NZ Drug Foundation that many AIDs patients prefer the marijuana to prescription painkillers because it has much less effect on their ability to think clearly and function.

Turei notes that others have raised concerns about the idea of allowing patients to grow their own pot. This would be the cheapest way to supply patients with their medicine, however the decentralised nature of this process alarms many MPs, who Turei says argue “that people would come and steal it – but they do anyway. Or that people would sell it – but they do anyway. The big issue has been around people being able to grow it themselves, because this whole idea that patients – or people for that matter – should have access to cannabis and be responsible for it is just not acceptable.” Turei says she is willing to consider amending the Bill to create a centralised growing operation, but MPs then complain that this would enourage people to break into pharmacies – “to which the answer is there are many more drugs inside a chemist’s shop that would be way more valuable (and fun), so that’s just ridiculous.” In the end, the bulk of opposition to the Bill simply comes down to a prejudiced belief that there is no such thing as medicinal marijuana use, and that the Bill must therefore be a ‘back door’ for recreational use.

Act, the only party who have pledged to help the Greens get the Bill through to the Select Committee stage, have a more specific concern. Heather Roy told us that she would want schizophrenia removed from the schedule of approved conditions for marijuana treatment. While Roy agrees that sufferers of many mental illnesses may benefit from smoking marijuana, she argues that her husband (a psychiatrist) routinely has to deal with schizophrenic patients whose paranoia is exacerbated by marijuana use. Turei says she is more than willing to make amendments to the Bill based upon scientific advice: “I’ve got a very flexible view about what could happen but I’ve got to get it into Select Committee first.”

With only the Greens and Act willing to stand up for those who are most hurt by prohibition, it sadly looks like this bill will linger for much longer, which both Turei and Roy note is a tragedy, as it denies legitimate medical help to people in serious pain, many of whom may be dead before their medicine becomes legal.

Metirian Turei:
“Medicinal users aren’t believed, they’re not treated like they really are medicinal users, and it’s impossible for them to really come out. Lots of them do, and they have as a result of this bill and are incredibly brave, but you can’t expect sick people to expose themselves to that extent. In the end it is still prejudice that is holding the bill up.”

Heather Roy:
“It’s absolutely the right thing to do, the medical evidence is there.”

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About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

Comments (13)

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  1. knobgobbler says:

    Does anyone here remember Scott Trainer? At least I think that was his name. Anyways he was a douche bag that was on the VUWSA exec three or 4 years back. he gave a whole lot of student money to NORML.

    It looks like by employing Tristan, VUWSA is again fueling the drug trade.

    Post Scriptus:
    “Recreational users such as myself”. tristan, I’m fucking calling the cops.

  2. Go ahead, they won’t arrest me :), they have better things to do.

  3. Karl Bronstein says:

    Oh knobgobbler, The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

    Post Wanktus:
    “tristan, I’m fucking” I hope you’re married or that is a sin
    Good day Sir and/or Madam

  4. Gibbon says:

    Are we going to get this shit all year Tristan, because I honestly couldn’t care less about your agenda.

  5. kittykat says:

    Hey, it makes a change from right-wing homophobic rants like last year’s crap from David f*ing Farrar and Lindsay Perigo!

  6. Lindsay Perigo + homophobic = oxymoron?

  7. Gibbon says:

    Don’t get me wrong… this is five times better than a lot of last year’s stuff… it’s just that Tristan is repeating some of the BETTER of last year’s stuff all over again, it seems.

  8. Gibbon: Your point has a bit of truth in it. I briefly mentioned medicinal marijuana in an article on prohibition in general last year, but really didn’t address it in any depth, and the bill has received very little attention so I feel it deserved an article.

    I get your point about repeating stuff, but then partly this is because the same issues are important each year. For example, last year we had a two page feature on the campus hub project, but since this has a significant influence on students and is still developing, we’re covering it again next week.

    At the end of the day, we only have a small number of people currently doing features, and we all have our pet topics. But it’s your magazine, so tell us what you you want to read about.

  9. knobgobbler says:

    I want to see more tits!
    I want to see less politics!
    I want to see more female on female mutual masturbation!
    Gimme Gimme (a man after midnight)

  10. Big T says:

    The thing that annoys me with most pro-cannabis law reform articles such as these is they almost always side step the implied health risks of cannabis or pay them lip service.

    The fact that current levels cannabis use relative to alcohol and tobacco represents a much lower health risk to the general public does not imply that given different legal statuses or the widespread or heavier usage that situation would persist.

    It’s early days for open, honest and broad studies of cannabis and it’s negative or beneficial effects. As seen above no mention is made of any studies of cannabis’
    effect on existing psychological conditions such as schitzophrenia. What studies I have seen quoted regarding risks are usually limited in their sampling and the results skewed to suit the argument. Many health workers and myself disagree with this idea that marijuana is not harmful (from my personal experience with family members with skitzophrenia).

    The most provable benefit from decriminalisation would be to break the ties between marijuana and organised crime. Marijuana is only a gateway drug when it is lumped together with harder drugs and these harder drugs are often more accessible to youth.

    I am not anti-cannabis. It’s something that a lot of people do enjoy, including myself – although much more rarely these days. However I feel that it’s being presented as benign is not responsible or balanced. It is in fact just more rhetoric from people that have bought the argument that dope smoking is a right, an expression of individuality, self expression or somehow holistic and ‘natural’ or maybe they just saw that Woody Harrelson doco and were easily convinced about it’s merits…

  11. Big T says:

    Yes there is no t…

  12. illuminati- WHERE DO I JOIN? says:

    its nice to be coming back to it from a relaxing time on the pipe and looking up studies on cannabis and finding a nz thing come up, bout time the world could see with ther OWN eyes instead of that blind fold and having the media shout through ther tv’s and radio’s at which way to walk and how high to jump, maybe ask some real questions like why are the jails ratio’s of black (maori’s) and whites so far out of whack and how crippling to the country is the fact that people smoke a plant that grows in the dirt….better lock those fuckers up! and then pay the lawyers fees so a maori can rape a 13 year old girl and have a chance at getting off…….just join me and escape the insanity which has became ‘normal’ and your the weird one for noticing things dont line up. just smoke a bit of dope and it seems to be easier than constantly wondering why the world is so mental and corrupt beyond your wildest dreams. keep your keyboard fingers strong!….nerds

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