COMMENT:

Earlier this week, the New Zealand Drug Foundation released their annual survey on Kiwi attitudes towards cannabis. Across the board, among voters of all stripes, support for cannabis law reform is increasing.

The survey found that 87 per cent of New Zealanders support "growing and/or using cannabis for any medical reasons such as to alleviate pain," a jump of almost 10 percentage points over the last 12 months.
Meanwhile, as regards recreational use, 67 per cent of New Zealanders support reform for personal possession and use, and 61 per cent support reform for personal growing.

All of this is important because it demonstrates that our cannabis laws are wildly out of step with the opinion of everyday Kiwis.

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But perhaps even worse than that, we know for a fact that our cannabis laws are wildly out of step with everyday practice.

The most recent Ministry of Health study we have on drug consumption in New Zealand is unfortunately from 2013, which at the time found that more than 400,000 Kiwis had used cannabis in the last twelve months.

In that study, 42 per cent of people reported they used it to alleviate pain. The cat is well and truly out of the bag - prohibition is not working.

On top of that, there are a number of New Zealand police officers who've openly admitted to the fact that cannabis is being decriminalised on the front line.

But what does all of that mean?

The most important starting point is to make it clear that the issues of medicinal and recreational cannabis are two separate issues. There'll be a referendum on adult, recreational use of cannabis on or by 2020, per the Green-Labour Confidence and Supply Agreement.

In January of this year, two bills were put before Parliament to reform the law concerning medicinal cannabis.

One was my Member's Bill, drafted originally by Hon Julie Anne Genter - who, becoming a Minister of the Crown, could not progress a Member's Bill - and the other was the Government's Bill, delivering on commitments under the 'First Hundred Days' plan.

The Government's Bill proposes a criminal defence for people with terminal illness, defined in the legislation as twelve months left to live, and delegates powers to the Ministry of Health to create new regulations for medical prescription of cannabis as well as a licencing scheme for domestic production of local cannabis products.

Our Green Member's Bill would've created a prescription scheme for those with a defined 'qualifying medical condition' to 'cultivate, possess or use the cannabis plant' or products with the support of a registered medical professional.

The major point of contention that arose around my Member's Bill was the so-deemed 'grow your own' provision. I noted that in Canada and certain states in the USA, they've for a very long time had the ability to grow their own plants for medicinal use, and studies have quelled the moral panic by demonstrating no greater uptake in recreation or amongst young people, as is often the catch-cry of moral panics regarding personal production.

The reason it was included in the Bill was because of the success of those overseas models, because of the guarantee of sustainable supply, and because, quite frankly, this is currently already happening - wouldn't it be better it happened with the oversight of a medical health practitioner?

In the same week, the Government's Bill was voted through the House unanimously, while our Green Member's Bill was voted down, support found solely from our Green caucus, members of the Labour Party, and ACT.

Fast-forward six months, and the Health Select Committee just this week reported back on the Government's Medicinal Cannabis Bill. The National Party notified the public that they would be withdrawing their support, and instead introducing their own Member's Bill predicated on a prescription-based model.

That Member's Bill, like all Member's Bills, relies on the lottery of the 'biscuit tin' to end up in the House. What that means is that the Bill could be drawn next week, or potentially remain there forever.

Over the past few months, I've been working across the House to bring together a Cross-Party Group on Drug Harm Reduction. It's got an expansive ambit, not the least focused on ending the War on Drugs in favour of an evidence-based public health approach, and in the case of medicinal cannabis, explicitly attempting to bring together MPs to get action sooner rather than later.

No-one is seeking to suggest that there's no harm that comes from the abuse of cannabis, as with any drug, alcohol included. But it would seem we're starting to get consensus across Parliament is that urgent, collaborative action is needed for patients and whānau to guarantee secure and affordable access to medicinal cannabis. That's something we can celebrate.