If the rumors are correct, medical cannabis may soon be more widely available in New Zealand. The New Zealand NORML chapter noted that “[o]f all the negative consequences of marijuana prohibition, none is as tragic as the denial of medicinal cannabis to the tens of thousands of patients who could benefit from its therapeutic use.” The cannabis extract Sativex has been available in New Zealand since 2008 via prescription from a general practitioner, but is erratically funded and must be approved by the Ministry of Health. (P.S. a year’s worth of Sativex prescriptions will run you about $16,000 USD!) Due to the high cost, most patients obviously can’t afford it – they still use illegal cannabis for self-medication. As a hospital anesthetist Dr. Paul Wieland in NZ stated, “[i]t’s so ridiculously expensive, it costs…12 or 13 hundred dollars a month, and who can afford it?”
Current Cannabis Laws in New Zealand
Despite its illegal status, cannabis is widely available in New Zealand, according to the New Zealand Police. Cannabis is NZ is also called mull, dak, and cabbage, and police currently control it by “disrupting the supply chain” in the usual ways – search, seizure, and taking assets and cash from growers. Possession in NZ carries a $500 fine, and supplying or manufacturing cannabis products may get you a 14-year jail term under current laws. A 7-year jail term, 2-year jail term, or a $2,000 fine may be the results for Kiwis who sow or plant cannabis on New Zealand soil.
New Zealand’s Request for Inquiry into Medical Cannabis
New Zealanders have expressed their desire for an independent (meaning scientific and unbiased) inquiry into the possible role of medical cannabis for the country’s residents; however, the Associate Health Minister in charge of it has been criticized recently, with one person accusing Peter Dunne of being “categorically resistant” to viewing cannabis as a medicine. This particular critic was recently arrested for importing a cannabis pain relief product, but was released without conviction by the justice system. Dr. Wieland stated that Dunne’s opinion, and that of many other politicians, seem “locked into this Reefer Madness thinking that was so prevalent in the 30s and 40s.” Dr. Wieland stated that “clinical trials involving the whole cannabis plant” are the only path toward full medical legalization and legal medicinal cannabis treatments for those who are suffering in NZ.
In cooperation with NZ citizens’ request, the Health Ministry and Dunne undertook a targeted consultation involving many medical specialists and the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA), but the review did not result in a positive result for medical cannabis supporters. As of 2012, the NZMA’s official stance on cannabis was still one of prohibition, and it only considered the possible positive effects of medical cannabis for extremely ill HIV and cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and who were unresponsive to other drugs. The NZMA did state that it supports research into medical cannabis and neurological disorders and as pain relief for chronic pain sufferers, but that “more research needs to be undertaken to determine the medical benefit of cannabis” for these issues.
New Zealand’s Independent Inquiry into Medical Cannabis
Dunne’s study resulted in the final decision of New Zealand’s Health Ministry to leave the guidelines around medical cannabis prescriptions the same, citing “unanimous feedback” supporting the current laws and refusing to take into account the changes in medical cannabis legalization around the world in recent years. The National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws does not agree with Dunne, and cites the current laws as “cruel and unnecessarily tough.” Advocates in NZ called the review itself “biased” in an open letter. They also believe that it “made misleading and deceptive scientific claims” that are both outdated and inaccurate.
Despite Dunne’s review results, he allowed a patient with Tourette Syndrome medical cannabis treatment in April. The approved medication was Aceso Calm Spray, which Dunne stated was chosen for its low THC content; he has rejected one other application and approved two at this point. A poll published in March of this year noted that of the 1750 New Zealanders polled, 72% support medical cannabis, while 13% are opposed and 15% don’t know if they would support it. This support crosses age, gender, and political party lines in New Zealand. Many Kiwis seem to look to the United States as a leader in the cannabis revolution, and cite its laws as a good example for future New Zealand laws. Psychologists in the New Zealand Medical Journal strongly support research on cannabis, as well as a “clear public debate” on the topic to mitigate confusion around the terminology and uses of medical cannabis.
It seems like New Zealand’s government may be coming around, but they could certainly use a bit more pushing from Kiwis to make medical cannabis more widely available and accepted.