LAST week, the Labour government and the Green Party presented two bills dealing with medical cannabis.

We've all been asked some time: "Do you want the good news first or the bad?"

Well, first the good news -- it's welcome and long overdue that we're having this debate in the first place and the hope is that some sensible policy may eventually come out of it.

The bad news is in the quality of the debate, starting with assumptions that underlie the proposed legislation.

Both bills are flawed in that they're not headed with an addition to our medical pharmacopeia. Instead they are designed as Amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act (1975).

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In a continuing effort to stem the tide of male bovine excrement from its polluting effect on our stream of rational consciousness, let's all understand that, regardless of what opposition politicians claim, neither bill legalises cannabis. They both merely add an exemption from prosecution.

The Greens bill, the simpler of the two, did not pass. All of National and New Zealand First voted against. It would permit cannabis use as a medicine for various conditions including chronic pain, leaving the matter between a patient and her doctor.

Labour's bill, which passed and goes now to a select committee for further consideration and debate, is 12 pages in length. It contains fairly elaborate conditions for prescribing cannabis but essentially it restricts the medical use to terminally ill patients, those likely to die within a year.

It's notoriously difficult to predict just how long people with serious life-threatening illness will live, but if this becomes law, those who qualify for medicinal cannabis will be given an unwelcome bit of news.

As to death, itself, I'm hoping those very recent ads on testing people for drugs and highway safety are just coincidence, except they don't identify the drugs but do show someone smoking, the usual route for illicit cannabis.

Some facts from the United States Highway Safety Commission are probably applicable here -- 49 per cent of traffic fatalities occur in the presence of alcohol. The US state of Colorado, first to legalise recreational marijuana, has had no increase in highway deaths since legalisation. Compared with all other states its rate of highway fatality is about in the middle (24th of 50).

Moreover, while a litre of (legal) vodka, consumed quickly, can be fatal, no credible evidence exists of death from cannabis alone.

Our MPs, known generally for their alcohol tolerance, did not acquit themselves well in the debate. Local National MP Harete Hipango voted against.

Some objected that the bill lacked sufficient regulatory framework. That's rich coming from a government whose deregulatory zeal for business contributed to the Pike River disaster.

As 78 per cent of New Zealanders favored the Greens bill, we might consider a few facts that those opposed choose to ignore.

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Cannabis has an established history of effectiveness in helping in the treatment of many conditions, including the prevention of blindness in glaucoma, alleviation of muscular spasticity in multiple sclerosis, improvement of rigidity in Parkinson's disease, appetite enhancement due to its loss from cancer treatment and chronic pain.

Despite the efforts of opponents in the US pharmaceutical-law enforcement-prison complex, the data for positive results is coming out of the 29 US states that have established medical cannabis.

In those states, the rate of mortality from opioids has decreased by 25 per cent making it clear that cannabis has a role in prevention and treatment of opioid abuse.

These cannabis bills are disappointing. We need a new public health framework, not one rooted in the war on drugs imported from the US, which itself reflects both racism and economic bias.

Whites and minorities in the US use marijuana to the same extent, yet the arrest and incarceration for people of colour and Latinos is three times that of whites. While the same applies here, we have the opportunity to do better, to let science and compassion guide our judgment and our decisions.

All we need, to quote another PM, is to "get some guts".

Jay Kuten
Jay Kuten

Jay Kuten is an American-trained forensic psychiatrist who emigrated to New Zealand for the fly fishing. He spent 40 years comforting the afflicted and intends to spend the rest afflicting the comfortable.