Hard News by Russell Brown


The Greens' pretty good new drug policy

The New Zealand Green Party today publishes a new drug and alcohol policy that, among other things, would legalise the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use. It also offers a robust take on medical cannabis that could be implemented independently of any general cannabis reform.

You probably thought the Greens already wanted to free the weed, right? Not lately. The current policy offers only to prioritise enforcement elsewhere and (as a "long term goal") to:

Monitor and evaluate the effects of the removal of personal penalties for cannabis use, drug education programmes, drug addiction treatment programmes, and pharmaceutical controls.

This new policy document is far more explicit:

A. Cannabis for personal use

1. The Green Party will make cannabis legal for personal use:

  1. Possession and personal use of cannabis and/or cannabis products will no longer be illegal;

  2. Cultivation for personal use will no longer be illegal;

  3. New Zealand can assess the evidence from overseas jurisdictions with legal cannabis markets to determine the best model for New Zealand;

  4. A legal age limit for personal cannabis use will be introduced;

  5. The current law around driving under the influence of cannabis will be replaced with one that is based on cannabinoid levels that correlates with impairment;

  6. Education will be provided on the harmful e ects of heavy and prolonged usage, and the risks to mental and emotional wellbeing from cannabis use for certain individuals.

  7. Cannabis would be specifically included in the provisions of the Smokefree Environments Act. 

The general cannabis reform proposal leaves the market question unanswered. Julie Anne Genter, who is fronting the policy, said that would be for a select committee and officials to nut out, but "I'm watching Canada because I think that culturally and administratively they're much closer to NZ than any of the other jursdictions."

The medical cannabis policy is more detailed and, importantly, includes a number of proposals that would be a matter of regulatory direction rather than law change. It threads a couple of needles quite well: reconciling the existing pharmaceutical approval processes with the use of natural cannabis outside that system – and, crucially, addressing the supply issue in a way that doesn't look like open slather.

B. Medical cannabis

Pharmaceuticals which use active ingredients from the cannabis plant are being researched around the world, and we can expect that some of them will eventually qualify for licensing as medications in new Zealand. People with a terminal illness, or chronic or debilitating condition may wish to experiment with use of cannabis products to relieve their symptoms before a relevant cannabis-based pharmaceutical has reached the stage of being licensed for use.

While awaiting broader law change for cannabis, the Green Party will:

  1. Remove penalties for any person with a terminal illness, or chronic or debilitating condition to cultivate, possess or use cannabis and/or cannabis products for therapeutic purposes, provided they have the support of a registered medical practitioner. This exemption would also apply to any immediate relative or other nominated person for a person with such a diagnosis, for the sole purpose in terms of administering or supplying cannabis or its related products to the person.

  2. Accelerate the process by which medical cannabis products are licensed for use by directing MedSafe to consider the establishment of category-based classes for common compositions of medical cannabis products. This would expedite accreditation for cannabis-based medicines whose chemical compositions are commonly recurrent, and streamline the approval process for medicines seeking to apply for PHARMAC funding.

  1. Encourage MedSafe to carry out extensive ongoing monitoring of any new and approved cannabis-based medicines to ensure that they meet acceptable standards of safety, quality and e cacy; and that medical practitioners have reliable information about the selection and safe use of these products when prescribing them.

  2. Lower barriers for manufacturers to submit new cannabis products for funding applications to PHARMAC so that evidence can be quickly gathered for the efficacy of particular cannabis-based medicine classes, and manufacturers of cannabis-based medicines have timely and high-quality advice regarding what is sought and what is working. 

In a way, it's more perilous for the Greens to propose this than another party, in that it conjures the the kind of hippy image they're been working to move their brand away from. But we've seen two polls this year indicating 80% public support for action on medical cannabis, and a strong majority for some form of general cannabis reform. And we've had Helen Kelly changing the conversation.

"I think it's been both having a clear advocate in New Zealand who could stand up for those people who are suffering and could benefit from medical cannabis, and the fact that other comparable jurdisdictions like the United States and Canada are already moving in that direction, or have already provided access to medical cannabis," Genter told me.

Like all Green policy, this has come through the party's "policy network" and much of it – it is meticulous in touching the various points of harm reduction and evidence-based policy – bears the mark of former MP Kevin Hague. The principles here are sound:

The Green Party recognises that:

1. Drug policy should be rational and based on credible and scientifically-valid evidence.

2. There can be adverse health, social and economic consequences from the use of drugs for both individuals and society.

3. Not all drug use is abusive or problematic.

4. Some individuals in society will choose to use drugs, regardless of their legal status.

5. Prohibition of drugs can cause more harm than it prevents.

6. Drug policy should have a primary focus on improving public health instead of trying to punish users.

There are, however, a couple of issues the party will find it hard to resolve: most notably its frequent reference to thePsychoactive Substances Act as a model, when that act is currently kneecapped by an animal testing ban that one of the party's MPs helped bring into law. I've addressed that in a separate post here.

The question is: does it matter? After all, the Greens' potential coalition partners, Labour (who have been informed of the policy) continue to take the position that drug law reform is "not a priority". But medical cannabis might be a different matter and what the Greens propose here is much more fully-formed than the Damien O'Connor members bill that Labour was prepared to get behind.

It is, at the least, a very good start on the conversation we need to have.

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