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Reform, not referendum, needed on medicinal drug laws - Press Editorial


Max Mason

Terminal cancer sufferer Helen Kelly's push for reform on medicinal cannabis has brought renewed publicity to the issue.

Terminally ill with lung cancer, Kelly has been a staunch advocate for the medicinal use of the drug since her diagnosis last year. She takes cannabis oil sourced from the black market for pain relief to avoid the sickening side effects of morphine.

The requirements for her to access the drug legally are "absurd", she said, and must change. To that end, she felt a referendum on the issue at the 2017 election might ease any qualms the Government has about public opinion on what is always a hot-button issue.

Helen Kelly says rules around access to medicinal cannabis in New Zealand are "absurd". Kelly is right and wrong. A referendum is unnecessary. Medicinal cannabis use is not a conscience issue, it is a clinical one. Any reform should be guided by research and the advice of medical experts rather than a nationwide poll.

Something needs to change, though. The current system, which, in at least one case, has required ministerial approval to use a cannabis-based treatment, is unsustainable.

Nelson teenager Alex Renton spent nearly three months in hospital last year suffering unexplained seizures, which did not respond to conventional medications. His family spent most of that time fighting for the right for him to be treated with a medicinal cannabis.

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne eventually approved the use of the drug. Renton initially showed signs of improvement, but died soon after. His case has been seen held by some as the catalyst needed to trigger reform.

Prime Minister John Key has said he would not support a debate on increasing access to medicinal cannabis. Dunne is more open to the idea.

The main hurdle is the lack of research in the field. Many clinical trials overseas have involved only small groups of people, making it hard to draw any reliable conclusions. On its website, the New Zealand Drug Foundation says, "We need more high-quality research on the benefits of cannabis for health problems".

So get it. The alternative is that sufferers of terminal or chronic illness who exhaust all other treatment options will, like Kelly, continue to source and administer medicinal cannabis themselves.

"It just seems absolutely insane that I've got no idea what I'm taking, how much I should take or how it's manufactured," she said, "It's crazy."

Dunne has said New Zealand is "watching closely" medicinal cannabis trials being done in Australia. Canada, Israel and a host of European countries now permit some form of medicinal cannabis use. Health industry leaders such as the New Zealand Drug Foundation and drug-buying agency Pharmac could be empowered to work toward similar reform here.

Kelly's referendum call may be misdirected, but it at least keeps the focus on an issue which needs policy work. As one GP said following Renton's death: "We use morphine and methadone and opium derivatives, it would be silly to look over cannabis if there was a potential use for it."

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