Medicinal Marijuana

Medicinal Marijuana

By Tristan Egarr | 28 Apr, 2008

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."*