Labour vs National on Medicinal Cannabis Reform: What’s the Deal?

Milly Sheed

A shake up of medicinal cannabis legalisation in New Zealand has been a hot topic of discussion since the introduction of our new Labour Government last year. Each party has a unique stance on the merits and regulatory requirements needed for medicinal cannabis to operate effectively in New Zealand. Accusatory rhetoric from media and Members of Parliament surrounds this debate, in particular blaming National of “playing politics”. So what actually is the difference between all these cannabis bills?

Cannabis is increasingly becoming recognised as an effective medicine for relieving chronic pain. There is a gradual trend towards its legalisation, with several countries across the globe welcoming its many medicinal benefits. Many countries across the EU have implemented regulatory schemes for those suffering to gain access to the drug, along with the likes of Canada and Australia.

Widening the scope of those allowed to use prohibited cannabis was one of Labour’s campaign promises for their first 100 days in office. Currently, a Government Bill amending the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 has reached its second reading phase in the House, which will liberalise the access and manufacturing of cannabis, with the hopes of utilising the drug to its full potential.

Back in January, Green MP Chloe Swarbrick introduced a bill to Parliament that extensively re-evaluated the terms under which New Zealanders with chronic pain are able to gain efficient access to cannabis for medicinal purposes. Unfortunately for the Greens, the bill failed at its first reading, with all of both National and NZ First voting it down. The Bill contained provisions granting patients the right to grow their own cannabis with written permission from a doctor. This significant change to the current law would have overcome one of the biggest hurdles for patients: the reluctance of doctors to go anywhere near prescribing cannabis products. Swarbrick was notably disappointed at the bill’s failure, particularly given what she states is 87% of New Zealanders who support the growing of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

The Government Amendment Bill, however, is currently preparing for its second reading in the House and, if passed into law, will make three major changes to the current law on medicinal cannabis. First, it will introduce a statutory defence for any person with a terminal illness found in possession of cannabis, without requiring permission from a doctor to do so. Many argue that this defence should be extended to include those people beyond the terminally ill. Auckland Patients Group recommends broadening its availability to those with “severe or debilitating” conditions. However, the Health Committee was not prepared to extend the criminal defence in this way, recognising the lack of efficacy data and the risks of using cannabis for this group of patients. While this amendment would certainly aid those close to the end of their lives, in practice it still leaves open the possibility of criminal liability on friends and family who may help a patient obtain illicit cannabis products.

The second change the Bill makes is the removal of cannabidiol (CBD) and CBD products from the “controlled drugs” classification. Under the current law, using cannabis products for therapeutic use is an offence under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, unless approval is given by the Ministry of Health. This amendment, therefore, would broaden patient’s ability to use certified cannabis products to ease their pain, without risking prosecution.

Thirdly, and a point of most contention amongst MPs, the Government Bill delegates responsibility for regulating product standards to the Minister of Health. This amendment tells us that the Government feels it is best to leave the practical logistics of the supply and manufacture of quality cannabis products to a specified regulatory body, instead of coming up with restrictions and controls themselves. Quite rightly, this has become a major area of uncertainty in the Bill’s ability to both effectively broaden access to medicinal cannabis, whilst maintaining adequate regulations to ensure its introduction is not abused.

National is strongly opposed to this third amendment, publically denouncing the absence of clear regulations as not “doing the work”. It is easy to see their point when we consider the likelihood of medicinal cannabis entering the recreational drug market. How could this be avoided? The Government Bill is silent on the matter.

Perhaps this is why, on the very same day that the Government’s bill returned from the Health Committee, the National Party introduced their own medicinal cannabis members’ bill to Parliament. Leader of the National Party, Simon Bridges, dubs this members’ bill far more suitable to meet the needs of New Zealanders, stating that the Government’s bill fails to produce both high quality medicinal cannabis products and legislative controls.

So, what do we know about National’s bill? We have heard, loud and clear, that it is “better” than the Government’s. Dr Shane Reti, who takes responsibility for the Members’ Bill (and who is also a member of the Health Select Committee charged with advising on the current Government’s bill), describes the Bill as a “Medicinal Cannabis Scheme” based on a pharmaceutical model. In other words, medicinal cannabis products will enter the market just like any other drug: prescribed by a doctor and distributed by a pharmacist.

National’s members’ bill is significantly different from the Government’s in a few ways. It will, notably, not provide a criminal defence for those possessing cannabis for medicinal use. National’s bill would only allow cannabis to be sought from pharmacists with an identification card issued by a doctor. More distinct, however, is National’s attention to detail, regarding a regulatory and access regime, which is absent from the Government’s current bill. National’s bill imposes strict licences on importers and domestic growers, as well as compulsory quality checks on products.

The Government Bill is focused, predominantly, on broadening access for sufferers, wasting no time. It will permit Ministry officials and regulatory bodies to decide on the best mode for practically implementing the regime. National, however, expresses their concern that politicians are the best people to make these types of decisions. Health Minister David Clark disagrees, stating that politicians deciding on regulations would impose too restrictive a system, and compromise their ability to do their job in a fast changing market.

There has been strong backlash, particularly in the media, speculating that a change in cannabis law is more about politics than policy. Many believe that this move by National to release their own bill, as opposed to offering up their ideas to the current Government Bill, is disrespectful of the Parliamentary system. Winston Peters (Deputy Prime Minister) expressed his cynicism of the petty politics at play, stating that National would have introduced legislation during their nine years in government if they were serious about legislative reform on this matter. Critically, for New Zealanders suffering from chronic pain and other debilitating conditions, National’s stance on the matter delays this crucial law reform, as the Government’s desired changes will now have to be implemented through Supplementary Order Papers.

Arguably, National’s bill is broader, more comprehensive and thoroughly equipped to manage the consequences and enforce regulations upon a domestic medicinal cannabis industry. The fact remains, however, that the National Party chose not to share their suggestions for improvement with the government, through debate or through the select committee stage of the parliamentary process. This would have been easy for National: Dr Reti was on the committee tasked with assessing the efficacy of the government bill. Instead National kept quiet. Their behaviour is strongly indicative of an Opposition more concerned with undermining the Labour Government, than directly addressing their commitment to thousands of suffering New Zealanders. That being said, National has some well-crafted regulatory ideas; maybe it is time for Labour to swallow their pride and take note.

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