New Zealand has taken the first step towards legalizing both medical and recreational cannabis.
Peter Dunne, Associate Health Minister and a consistent critic of cannabis, has announced a change in drug policy that could pave the way for legalization.
Dunne made it clear that marijuana legalization was not being discussed. He said,
“Cabinet have accepted my recommendation that on the advice of the expert advisory committee of drugs that CBD be removed from the misuse of drugs act because it has potential therapeutic benefits to patients.”
This marks the beginning of a debate between legalization activists and prohibitionists who still consider cannabis a dangerous drug.
Hemp is already cultivated in New Zealand for hemp seed oil and industrial applications. Some of the 2006 legislation for growing hemp could be repurposed for cannabis regulations. Medical marijuana advocates like Richard Barge, part of the New Zealand Hemp Industries Association supports Dunne’s move. Barge stated,
“There are tremendous opportunities for the farmers and because we are talking about a bulky raw material, all that value-adding should be done as close to the farm as possible, like processing the fibre or cleaning and drying the seeds which creates opportunities for contractors and people to invest in infrastructure.”
Although the infrastructure and a few hemp laws could be the foundation for a brand new cannabis industry, Dunne clarified that a CBD-only program would be heavily restricted. “Farmers won’t be growing cannabis for medicinal cannabis in New Zealand full stop, this is about products that are CBD-based that are manufactured being able to be prescribed to New Zealand patients,” he said. “There is a very limited market at the moment.”
New Zealand’s black market for cannabis has increased in recent years as patients look for better treatments for cancer, epilepsy, pain and other illnesses. This likely wouldn’t change in a CBD-only market with few qualifying conditions. With no plans to form a legitimate cannabis industry, patients may have trouble acquiring the medicine they need.
“There is a big job to do educating the medical profession not just [about] CBD but about the whole issue around cannabis-based medicines, we have been talking with the medical association for some time about providing better medical information to doctors,” said Dunne.
Patients suffering from acute illness are looking forward the idea of medical marijuana as an alternative to their current treatments. “I’m on a whole bunch of meds at the moment, like a cocktail,” said Molly Kelsey, a 24 year-old epilepsy patient. “If I could even just get off one of them by using CBD oil it would be amazing. That would just change my life.”
Unfortunately, Kelsey doesn’t qualify for New Zealand’s current CBD program, even though she can up to 20 seizures a day when her epilepsy symptoms are at their worst. “My neurologist told me that … basically I wasn’t having enough seizures and they weren’t violent enough to qualify. They were looking at me having surgery, which was going to be more viable than actually getting access to CBD oil. Which is ridiculous.”
Even if this new development leads to medical marijuana legalization, there is still a significant knowledge gap among physicians who view cannabis as a dangerous drug.
“There’s no education for doctors from the medical association or from any kind of medical advisory board in New Zealand,” said Tory Catherwood, a fifth-year medical student and a medical marijuana activist. “It puts doctors in a difficult situation because I don’t think many of them would be prescribing it immediately, because they probably don’t know enough about it.”
Catherwood is filming a documentary about medical cannabis that aims to educate New Zealand physicians who are unfamiliar with marijuana as a medicine. “It’s been illegal for so long and it’s been stigmatised and taboo to talk about for so long that opening up this door, it may be a while before people start walking through it,” she said.