Marijuana, weed, pot. Whatever word you use, the legalisation of cannabis is hotly debated. Amid the controversy over legalising the drug for recreational use, a group of people suffering from chronic pain and health problems are calling for medicinal cannabis to make their lives liveable. Bay of Plenty Times health reporter Jean Bell speaks to a mother who hopes to reap the rewards of medicinal cannabis.
A Tauranga mother is crossing her fingers that medicinal cannabis will soon be among the readily available options to manage her crippling health problem.
But a doctor is warning it might not be the miracle drug people hope for, and an addictions service health expert is concerned about the implications of loosely regulated legalisation.
This comes as the Ministry of Health released proposals for medicinal cannabis products regulation, which are now out for public consultation.
Ōtūmoetai solo mother Aimee Harborne has Crohn's disease, chronic inflammation of the bowel, which can cause diarrhoea, bleeding and excruciating abdominal pain.
She has read online about medicinal cannabis being used to manage the pain, nausea, and diarrhoea that came with the condition.
She believes it could radically improve her life.
"I'd be able to do everything I want with my daughter; I'd be able to work a job. I wouldn't have to be on medicine that makes me-," Harborne pauses, trying to find the right words.
"Tired," she finally says, with a tight throat.
Her current treatment consists of a concoction of pills to manage symptoms and a fortnightly immunity-suppressing injection.
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Harborne is unable to work and relies on a benefit to support herself and her primary-school-age daughter.
In addition to physical pain, her disease takes a mental toll.
She is anxious to leave the house because she may suddenly need to use the toilet.
She also worries about the impact it has on her parenting.
"How can I be an adequate mum when I'm stuck on the toilet 30 times a day?"
If the Government did legalise medicinal cannabis, Harborne would like to be accessible to those on low incomes.
However, she would not support it being legal to grow at home so that children could be exposed to it.
Darryl Wesley, a health professional working in addiction services, supported strongly regulated medicinal cannabis and vehemently opposed recreational marijuana.
He said he was open-minded, but the evidence from overseas countries indicated loose medicinal cannabis laws and legal recreational use were harmful.
He supported open access to medicinal cannabis, so long as it was grown, packaged into tablets and distributed by New Zealand-owned companies for controlled prescription and sale by a doctor or pharmacist.
"We're talking about medicinal use, so it should be treated as such. It's just another medicine used to address a health condition."
He was against home-grown plants, even for medicinal use, as he believed it would end up being used recreationally.
Bay of Plenty District Health Board medical director Dr Hugh Lees said there was no evidence for the use of medicinal cannabis in treatment.
However, he believed further studies were warranted.
Lees cited research from Cochrane, a global independent network of health researchers, which concluded the effects of cannabis and cannabis oil on Crohn's disease were "uncertain".
He said the DHB did not recommend using medicinal cannabis outside of a proper research trial setting.
Tauranga GP Dr Luke Bradford said doctors had received minimal information on medicinal cannabis, how the rollout and administration would work.
"We're really in the dark," he said.
He said the matter had taken front and centre in public conversation, but there had not been the same development in the medical industry.
"We get fads where there is a huge amount of hope that something will fix all ailments, like an elixir of life."
He said education - for both medical professionals and the public - was crucial around the roll-out and implementation.
Bradford said there was a big misconception that the pharmaceutical industry influenced doctors.
"There's no way that big pharma can influence us ... we focus on what patients need."
Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless said he was opposed to recreational cannabis and if medicinal marijuana was made legal, it should be well regulated.
"You'd want to make sure it was truly medical and didn't have anything that could be used for other purposes."
Minister of Health Dr David Clark said in a written statement that making medicinal cannabis more accessible could ease the suffering of thousands of people living in pain.
He said the Government was looking for feedback on whether the proposals met its overall goal of improving patient access to quality medicinal cannabis products.
"We are also looking for views on how these products are prescribed, the quality standards for medicinal cannabis products, licensing for cultivators and manufacturers, barriers to patients accessing these medicines and several other proposals," Clark said.
What is Crohn's disease?
- Crohn's disease a condition in which there is swelling, thickening and inflammation of one or more parts of the gastrointestinal tract from the mouth to the anus.
- There are approximately 15,000 people in New Zealand affected by inflammatory bowel disease.
- The cause is unknown, but heredity or environmental factors may play a part in the development.
- Symptoms include chronic diarrhoea, abdominal pain, fever, vomiting and constipation.
Source Ministry of Health and Crohn's and Colitis
Iwi investigates possible investment
Ngāi Te Rangi's chief executive Paora Stanley said the iwi was looking into possible investment in medical cannabis.
The iwi was keeping tabs on how the legalisation situation was unfolding and would treat a possible venture into the industry like any other investment, he said.
He believed Tauranga would be an ideal spot for cannabis production, given it was just on the doorstep of the port and rail transport.
Medicinal cannabis plants would need to be carefully monitored in a controlled environment to ensure the same high-quality product was grown, he said.
He believed the Government would adopt the Canadian model. It was a "solid policy" with sound regulatory and monitoring systems, which he supported so organised crime did not get involved, he said.
Stanley said he was a strong anti-drug campaigner, but he thought recreational use would be made legal eventually.
A possible iwi venture into the industry would need to be balanced with the iwi's policy to discourage drug use.
He said doctors would need to be open to administering medicinal cannabis, in spite of the push of pharmaceutical companies against its development.