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May 4, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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The Hippocritical Oath

I met Jack (pseudonym), 59, habitual marijuana user, at his home. Usually when we picture the abodes of tokers we think of derelict state houses, ramshackle bungalows. Jack’s abode was antithetical to this perception: lavish, multi-storied, adorned with art. He spends most of his time either asleep, trying to sleep, or in bed. The longest journey he feels capable of making today is to the La-Z-Boy in an adjoining living room, though the surrounding jam-packed bookshelves and prominently displayed cycle machine intimate that, once, a very different kind of man lived here.

Jack is terminal.


Entertainer extraordinaire Whoopi Goldberg recently made headlines when she ‘fessed to smoking weed in an article for The Cannibist. She makes no secret of the fact that she has, in the past, indulged in it recreationally, but these days the motive is entirely different. She partakes in the green through her vape pen not for a high but because it “help[s] me live comfortably with glaucoma”. Her plight is far from unique; hundreds of thousands of people are using medical marijuana to aid a vast range of conditions, from nausea (a common side effect of chemotherapy) to Dravet syndrome (for which cannabis is a ‘miraculous’ help) to Crohn’s disease. It’s been proven again and again that cannabis, or some of its constituent cannabinoids, helps ameliorate symptoms for suffering people.

Yet the use of medical marijuana has still not been comprehensively endorsed in legislation in New Zealand. Arguably the two most vigorously waged battles in recent history have been ‘The War on Drugs’ and ‘The War on Cancer’ – what happens when the two intersect?

When newly minted doctors pass their exams and enter the field, they must first recite and swear to obey what’s known as the ‘Hippocratic Oath’, which goes a little something like this: ‘Do No Harm’. Those three syllables provide the foundation of modern medicine, and perhaps the most important stricture that medical institutions must obey – at least theoretically. In truth, for a medical practitioner to do NO harm is nigh-on impossible. There has not been a drug prescribed that hasn’t had at least a possibility of a side effect, and in the case of strong medications, adverse effects are almost guaranteed. People tend to forget the gravity involved in taking medication – it does fundamentally alter one’s make-up, and repercussions are unavoidable.

That in mind, a drug must pass two rigorous criteria in order to become eligible for public consumption. The first is based on the drug’s proven efficacy in clinical trials; the second is how harmful the drug is versus whether or not the drug works. This second criterion is applied on a case-by-case basis and requires much more analytical thinking, and for ailments like cancer and glaucoma the ‘harm’ threshold is significantly lower – most legal treatments that tackle the disease are toxic at best and outright savage at worst. That’s a harsh but inexorable truth.

Chemotherapy and the like are sanctioned by the Government in spite of their (literal) ill-effects, for logically sound reasons. However, according to the FDA over in America and the similar body implemented in New Zealand to regulate medicinal drugs, the deleterious effects of legalising medical marijuana outweigh the benefits. The reasons given? Mostly mumbled sheepishly during press conferences rather than with any real conviction.

Allegedly, medical marijuana can cause cognitive issues later down the line (irrelevant, tragically, in the case of terminal patients like Jack), dependency (unlike, say, Lorazepam or Valium (I’m being sarcastic. They’re both addictive as fuck, chums)) and, most laughably of all, ‘dizziness’ (for patients having their bodies ravaged by chemo, I suspect that feeling a little woozy probably won’t be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, especially if their pain is eased and their appetite is restored). They even use the classic “Think of the children!” gambit, fearing that if medical marijuana is made legal, children will be able to access the substance accidentally. Children will never stumble on Mum or Dad’s OxyContin, Demerol, Ritalin, medicinal speed (!), or even, like, Crazy Uncle Johnny’s cigarettes, though. They’re different.

This in spite of the numerous benefits marijuana brings. It’s a godsend for some individuals suffering chronic pain (Chronic > Chronic pain, tbh), it remedies some of the deleterious side effects of chemotherapy. It works wonders for the pain and listlessness. It reinvigorates appetite by means of a side effect often perceived to be irritating or humorous. Who knew the munchies could come in handy? This effect works in concurrence with marijuana’s reduction of nausea. A more abstract but still indubitably positive effect is in the control someone who takes medical marijuana has. They can administer the drug themselves, using a means they prefer and in a dosage that they feel is perfectly contoured to their needs. As Whoopi Goldberg says, being able to vape her bud instead of smoke it is a means her lungs can handle. If you can only stomach a teeny-weeny bit, then, that would be A-OK.

In a medical process where every other step is out of your control and in the hands of either a medical professional or your own mutinous body, being allocated a degree of autonomy seems to me humane and essential. As Ross Bell, Executive Director of the Drug Foundation states, “it’s a no-brainer” that medical marijuana should be made available to those for whom it can help.

In a report issued by the New Zealand Government, a group of experts concluded that comprehensively legalising medical marijuana was the correct course of action. This was seven years ago; no corrective legislation has been enacted since. What might surprise you, as it surprised me, was that in one specific form, medical marijuana is already legal in New Zealand. Sativex is a mouth-spray that contains cannabinoids which ameliorate symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS), and it has been approved for use in New Zealand. However, it is not government-subsidised, which makes it prohibitively costly, and you can only be approved to use it if you meet a stringent set of criteria (including suffering from MS – it cannot be prescribed off-script), know the right doctor and undergo what can best be described as rigmarole.

Outside of this exception, the New Zealand health board refuses to permit medical marijuana or even conduct research on cannabinoid-based products, regardless of how the cannabis is ingested. A common misconception is that medical marijuana needs to be smoked. It can be ingested in a pill form that does not generate a ‘high’ – more analogous to aspirin, which is comprised of a compound found in bark, than tobacco.

On the matter, it seems the Government is adamant that it will not think critically because of the stigma attached with smoking weed, and a hard-headed, fearmongered belief that marijuana is the Devil’s drug in spite of the swathes of empirical research that prove otherwise. In refusing to relent in their draconian approach to drug consumption, they are directly harming their own people.

This is, if you’ll allow me to editorialise, a fucking travesty. I don’t want to come off as disingenuous here; the reasons I want cannabis legalised extend no further than wanting to be able to smoke the wrong kind of cigarette with a cup of tea before bed without fear of legal recrimination. For those suffering vile illness, it is less a want than a necessity, recreational users be damned. Medical practitioners have an ethical duty to afford their patients comfort and dignity.

It is a duty that is being shirked.


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  1. Dylan says:

    Having suffered chronic neurological pain for some years, I am telling everyone here that the New Zealand government needs to wake up. The reason they won’t is the major drug companies worth trillions of dollars don’t want their industry blown apart. I have no doubt that someone out there has cures for cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinsons etc, and maybe the cure is Marijuana or similar. But whilst these mega-companies are making unimaginable amounts of money nobody will ever hear about it. Corruption is a word that could be used. I heard at one stage (someone might wish to confirm) that New Zealand doctors are instructed/paid to prescribe certain numbers of certain drugs. All to make money. At one stage I was on 6 different drugs in high doses to stop spasms that would leave me screaming throughout the night. Most of those drugs were being used to counter the side effects of other drugs. Our health system is fucked and controlled by big businesses. Until that ends, hundreds of thousands of us, including myself will continue to live in pain.

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