In his latest NZ POLITICS DAILY up Bryce Edwards looks at The Battle over medical marijuana, which has many useful links on the topic.
This focusses on Helen Kelly’s battle with cancer and her other battle, with medical bureaucracy in trying to get access to a medical cannabis product that’s unavailable in New Zealand.
Kelly has highlighted a very contentious issue, particularly as there seems to be accelerating moves towards allowing the growing of cannabis and the production of medical products, most notably for us in Australia and the US.
One of the biggest problems here is the lack of available credible research on the effectiveness and the safety of medical cannabis.
However for someone who is dying of cancer safety shouldn’t be too much of an issue, and allowing some alleviating of suffering and comfort of mind should be much higher considerations.
It’s a bit bizarre that they don’t want us to be able to take lethal drugs to end our lives if we so wish, but they don’t want us to be able to take comfort drugs that have long proven to be virtually non-lethal.
One of the best posts on Kelly and medical cannabis is by Russell Brown at Public Address – Helen Kelly’s letter.
While looking at Kelly’s situation specifically Brown also considers the wider situation.
In particular, there should be some better thinking around palliative care. It doesn’t make sense to treat every application to improve the quality of life of a dying person the same as a bid to give a sick child an experimental treatment. The criteria are ostensibly specifically dedicated to cannabis products, but they’re actually entirely general. We need this to be done better and more transparently.
As I’ve noted before, the use of cannabis in palliative care represents a particular ethical case. If a patient testifies that the treatment does in fact improve their quality of life and ease suffering in a way that approved pharmaceutical products have not, that should count for a great deal. The case for preventing access becomes much, much harder to make.
But many doctors and the Ministry of Health seem reluctant to go there.
Peter Dunne has previously said to me that the criteria are only guidelines and don’t determine his ministerial decision. But he’s a minister who likes to emphasise that he acts on expert advice. And perhaps he has no choice, given his limited stock of political capital in this area.
This is, after all, a government that has chosen to brand itself on never changing the law – either the Misuse of Drugs Act or the Medicines Act – no matter what the evidence. That was, remember Justice Minister Simon Power’s response to the Law Commission’s view that there was “no reason why cannabis should not be able to be used for medicinal purposes in limited circumstances” by declaring ”There is not a single solitary chance that as long as I’m the Minister of Justice that we’ll be relaxing drug laws in New Zealand.”
Power is no longer Ministry of Justice, but every single initiative to improve the way we deal with drugs in New Zealand still has to climb around this entirely political edict. It’s the key reason we have little prospect of dealing sensibly with a fast-changing environment.
During the last election campaign, Prime Minister John Key paid visits to several Kapiti Coast and Porirua schools. When he wasn’t insisting that his favourite music was One Direction, Key fielded this question from a student at Kapiti College:
Asked whether he would legalise medical marijuana, he told the school assembly: “This is the fundamental message. Drugs are bad for you.”
Yes, the Prime Minister really did say “Drugs are bad, m’kay?”
Dunne cops much of the flak for Government unwillingness to address medical cannabis or the wider issue of recreational use.
But there’s nothing Dunne can do about changing laws on this if National won’t allow it, and they are the ones with the most votes by far, and the most reluctance to do anything. I don’t think we will get cannabis law reform, nor any meaningful attempt to consider any change to our stance on the drug, while National are in government.
It seems that National doesn’t want to give a medical inch for fear of a recreational mile. But that’s out of touch with the world that is quite rapidly changing it’s attitude to cannabis and criminality.
Dunne seems to be trying to move things as far as he can under existing law, and Brown believes that medical cannabis could be easily allowed under the current laws.
The good part is that the criteria for applications like Helen’s can be improved without changing the law. They’re not part of the Medicines Act. I think Peter Dunne needs to ensure, as minister, that the process is fundamentally improved. Because a process so designed as to frustrate all medical cannabis applications will not prevent the use of cannabis in this way.
If the process was improved then access to medical cannabis could be made much easier for those who seek it.
In the end, we do need to revisit the law – as the Law Commisison and two Parliamentary select committee inquries have already said. Palliative care is not the only element of medical cannabis policy. But it’s certainly the place we should start, given the growing use of cannabis this way in defiance of the law. When we fail to do this, we impose risk and stress on desperately ill people and their doctors – and we’re saying we don’t care enough to properly regulate for their safety.
No one is going to prosecute Helen Kelly for treating her symptoms with cannabis. But what the system currently says is that it can’t and won’t make that safer for her. We need to do better than this. A lot better.
And it really shouldn’t take much to make things better for people like Kelly who are suffering as they die.
And there are potentially many people who are not living through death sentences whose lives could possibly be substantially improved, or at least given some hope, if the Ministry of Health re-thought and improved their processes for approving medical cannabis.