Hard News by Russell Brown


About last night's medical cannabis question

The medical cannabis question from a cancer survivor in last night's leaders' debate was an absolute gift for Jacinda Ardern, and she didn't miss. Her swift, succinct "Yes" was everything Bill English's uncomfortable, qualified answer wasn't. 

It was also effective cover for the fact that Ardern's Labour Party doesn't really have a proper policy on the issue.

Which isn't to say that Damien O'Connor's private members bill – which Andrew Little had already promised would be the basis of a law change within the first 100 days – wouldn't be a useful step forward. O'Connor's bill would remove the requirement for approval by the Associate Health minister or ministry officials for every prescription of a medical cannabis product.

But there has already been progress there since O'Connor's bill was drafted. Sativex, the only pharmaceutical-grade product with Medsafe approval, can now be prescribed by doctors without reference to officials. As of this month, products containing CBD will also be able to be directly prescribed by doctors – although CBD will (pointlessly, given that it's non-psychoactive) remain a controlled drug and approved products will remain expensive and difficult to source.

O'Connor's bill would also place the onus on the Ministry of Health to nominate non-pharma-grade products that could be prescribed. There has been progress there too, thanks to the patient, tireless advocacy of Medical Cannabis Awareness New Zealand (MCANZ) and an openness among ministry officials that wasn't there two years ago. MS sufferer Huhana Hickey has been legally using a cannabis-oil based product from the Canadian company Tilray and says it's better and easier to tolerate than Sativex. It's also a bit cheaper – that is, about $1000 a month for someone like Huhana. Which is still too much.

At this point, it's worth looking at the exact wording of Liz Morris's question to the two party leaders last night.

Recently when I went through chemo I had to consider the whole issue of cannabis. My question is this: pharmaceutical cannabis is inaccessible and very expensive. Would you consider legalising cannabis for medicinal purposes, for the extension of life and pain relief – so people like me don't have to consider being criminals and would know the quality of what they're taking?

That's what Ardern said an unequivocal "yes" to. And that "yes" goes well beyond any actual policy Labour currently has.

That probably actually matters less than it might appear, because there's already a medical cannabis bill – Julie Anne Genter's members bill – that will go to select committee during the next parliamentary term. As I noted when the bill was drawn, there are legitimate questions about the text of the bill. The vexed issue of grow-your-own provisions will be subject of considerable debate and the original draft of the bill will undoubtedly change.

But it's there, it's in the process already – and that's extremely significant. MCANZ has been quietly approaching political parties with a useful paper outlining policy options, including suggestions on how home growing could be regulated.

It would all be a lot easier, of course, if the general law on cannabis was changed. And happily, there's a pathway there too. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1974 is finally due for review in the next term. There's likely to be considerable interaction between the processes for that and Genter's bill.

Would the government of a Prime Minister Ardern go there? I think so. Little was conservative on drug law reform – which is why Labour doesn't have a coherent policy beyond chanting that drug use should be considered a health rather than a criminal issue. By contrast, last year Ardern was one of a handful of New Zealand public figures (Metiria Turei was another) to sign a public letter to the UN Secretary General calling for an end to the war on drugs.

It's actually somewhat similar to what's happening around capital gains tax  – Little's departure has allowed the issue to go back onto the table, but they don't have a policy so they're obliged to be vague. I don't expect them to magic up a policy they don't have in the month before an election – indeed, I'd rather they didn't. This stuff isn't trivial.

But I think the indications are promising. A couple of weeks ago, in the Media Take green room, I reminded Kelvin Davis that I'd interviewed him a couple of years before and he'd said that he didn't support decriminalisation and then gone on to hope for reform that was basically decriminalisation. He just couldn't quite say it.

And now? Things had changed, he said – he was all the way there. The time he'd spent involved with the New Zealand corrections system had seen to that. And in that show we recorded and in Māori Television's leaders debate, he said so. In the latter, he used the example of a whanau he knew who feared seeking help for their son's meth problem because they didn't want him exposed to the criminal justice system. It was powerful because it was practical.

On Wednesday on Back Benches, Wallace Chapman quizzed Peter Dunne on his proposal to legalise and regulate cannabis, and asked Labour's Chris Hipkins why his party couldn't go there. Hipkins repeated the usual health-not-criminal line – and then acknowledged that the logical end point of that philosopy was likely something like what Dunne proposed.

So I think that the intent is there – and that given the way the Parliamentary stars have aligned, intent is all that's required for now. There's a medical cannabis bill up for grabs and a once-in-two-generations opportunity to modernise our drug law. Realistically, genuine progress on either will only be possible if Labour leads the next government.

But even that's not a given. I interviewed Peter Dunne this week for a story I'm working on – and it was a conversation I simply couldn't have had with any other MP. A Labour-led government will need to find such a person. It may be that the list of requirements – senior enough to be an associate minister, policy nerd, affinity for the issues – can't be satisfied in any one person. That's okay, too. Put two people on it. And make at least one them Māori. No conversation on drug policy in New Zealand can be had without Māori. Bottom line.

However it's worked out, this needs to be taken seriously. It's time.

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