Thursday, July 17, 2008

Where Many Countries Have Gone Before

Below is the media release and opening verbal statement for NORML's written submission on the Medicinal Cannabis petition that was presented yesterday. TV3 covered the story nicely (vid here).


Representatives from drug law reform organisation NORML appeared before the Health select committee this morning, presenting evidence in support of their Medicinal Cannabis petition, which received over 6,000 signatures.

“Political interference to safe access of medicinal cannabis is no longer justifiable,” said Will de Cleene, vice-president of NORML.

Medical use of cannabis is legal or permitted in a number of territories, including Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Spain, and many U.S. states.

“Cannabis has demonstrable therapeutic value,” de Cleene said. “What we seek is not novel, nor unreasonable. We ask that medicinal cannabis is permitted to be used by consenting adults in consultation with their medical practitioners.”


Notes: NORML's Medicinal Cannabis petition stated: "That parliament give urgent attention to changing the law to allow individuals to obtain, possess and use cannabis for treatment of serious medical conditions when this has been recommended or endorsed in writing by the individual's registered medical practitioner."

Electronic copies of NORML’s written submission are available on request.

The hearing will be in Select Committee Meeting Room 4, Parliament House, Wellington, on Wednesday 16 July 2008. The committee will hear from NORML from 10.45am to 11.15am and from the Ministry of Health from11.15am to 11.45am.

Introduction to the Health select committee for the Petition in support of Medicinal Cannabis
By NORML (NZ) Inc.

Madam Chairperson, members of the Health select committee, thank you for taking the time to review the petition on citizens’ access to medicinal cannabis. In addition to the signatures already presented, we present a further 3000 signatures in support of this petition.

I would like to spend the first few minutes of this hearing emphasising the main points from NORML’s written submission, then draw your attention to further research that has come to light since. We then have several medicinal cannabis patients who will testify to the personal positive impact that cannabis has on mitigating their sufferings.

The Medicine

Cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes for approximately 4,000 years.

In New Zealand, Mother Suzanne Aubert, founder of the Our Lady’s Home of Compassion, recognised the special therapeutic properties of this plant. This nun, who served alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, was the first person to grow cannabis in New Zealand, dispensing it to alleviate menstrual cramps.

Nowadays, there is substantial evidence that cannabis has a range of therapeutic properties, including:
1 pain relief
2 appetite stimulant
3 antiemetic
4 anti-inflammatory
5 antipyretic
6 neuroprotection
7 analgesic

Cannabis is commonly used by people suffering from:
1 HIV and AIDS
2 Glaucoma
3 Multiple Sclerosis
4 Epilepsy
5 Chronic Pain
6 Cancer

Cannabis research is continuing in other treatments:
7 Prion Diseases
8 Alzheimer’s
9 Diabetes
10 Gastro-intestinal disorders
11 Hepatitis C
12 Hypertension
13 Osteoporosis
14 Tourette’s

The following professional bodies endorse medicinal cannabis as a course of treatment:
* The American College of Physicians - America's second largest physicians group
* Leukemia & Lymphoma Society - America's second largest cancer charity.
* American Academy of Family Physicians
* American Public Health Association
* American Psychiatric Association
* American Nurses Association
* British Medical Association
* AIDS Action
* American Academy of HIV Medicine
* Lymphoma Foundation of America
* Health Canada

Safe Medicine

There have been no fatalities caused by cannabis overdoses in recorded history. Ever. A US Drug Enforcement judge in 1988 went so far as to say:
"Marijuana is the safest therapeutically active substance known to man... The evidence clearly shows that marijuana is capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people, and doing so with safety under medical supervision. It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious … to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance."

In 1998, this select committee concluded that the mental health impact of cannabis “appears to have been overstated.” NORML recognises that cannabis may not the best medicine for everyone, and its use is best prescribed and monitored by doctors and health professionals.

Some concern may be raised that smoking anything can be a questionable method for treating illness. However, this can be mitigated by use of harm minimisation techniques. For example, a vaporiser - like this one here - releases active ingredients from cannabis without releasing the carcinogens of burning plant material. The Kiwi invention of “spotting” uses a similar principle, with appropriate implementation.

Many patients may prefer to safely ingest cannabis in the form of food, drinks, or tinctures, as the pain relief qualities are significantly different from inhalation. However, due to the expense of black market prices, as well as often debilitating medical conditions that prevent some users from producing their own cooking, as well as the risk of being charged with a more serious Class B offence, these options are not as common.

There are significant benefits to inhaled cannabis. It is an effective means of titration due to the quick diffusion into the blood stream by the lungs. Ingested cannabis may take up to two hours to take effect. Insufficient quality control and varying strains of plant may also provide inaccurate titration.

Little actual evidence of black market diversion has been presented, and it hasn't been the case overseas. We think there is minimal risk of medicinal cannabis diversion, as there is plenty to go around anyway! Seriously, this is just the same issue as with any other medicine and can be handled in the same way. This is not an issue, it's a diversion.

A key point to consider is that patients are already using cannabis medicinally, but quality control and safety issues in a prohibition environment can cause more harm than having a toke. The quality and consistency of black market cannabis can vary dramatically. Illegal cannabis may be tainted with fungi or police pesticides, which is sprayed on some cannabis plants.

Patients are already exposed to the risks and dangers inherent to the black market. Securing cannabis when cannabis is illegal puts vulnerable people in an even more vulnerable position. Rip-offs and bad deals are not unheard of, neither is violence and intimidation. The changes we seek are about protecting patients, restoring control, and securing safe access for their medicine.

The Politics

Fundamentally, it should not to be up to politicians to decide what people in suffering can or cannot use, and how they might use it. That matter should be
between the patient and their health professional. Unqualified observers cannot presume to know best when pain is so very personal.

Madam Chair, members of the select committee, we beseech you to go where many of your international peers have gone before.

Medical use of cannabis is legal in a number of territories, including Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, Australia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Spain, and some U.S. states.

California has permitted medicinal cannabis since 1996. Compassion Clubs were among many enterprises that began dispensing cannabis. These co-operatives employ many terminally ill people, who lived out their last days at these Clubs, tending the plants and getting an arguably better quality of life ending than some New Zealand rest homes.

Today, there are even ATMs that dispense medicinal cannabis in California - with the aid of fingerprint scanners and centrally-monitored databases to prevent misuse.

A recent report on cannabis use rates in the US states where medicinal cannabis is permitted shows a conclusive decrease in youth consumption:

1 California – use drops across the board, up to 47 percent
2 Washington State, across the board drop of up to 62 percent
3 Nevada, decrease in all age groups up to 50 percent
4 Maine, Hawaii, Oregon, Colorado, Vermont, ALL had universal double-digit decreases in youth consumption of cannabis.
5 Only Alaska, Montana and Rhode Island showed any increase at all, and these were in isolated age groups and still outweighed by net decreases in most age groups.

The report compared these states with nationwide trends, observing:

“Overall, the trends in states with medical marijuana laws are more favourable than the trends nationwide.”

Tolerance of medicinal cannabis may very well provide the very message to our young ones that the existing political response hasn’t. Portraying cannabis as the medicine it is, instead of the illusion of benign rebellion it currently garners, seems to go some way in lowering teen use.

In Britain in 2002, teen cannabis use was on the rise. By 2007, after the decriminalisation of cannabis in 2004, teen use had dropped significantly. In the Netherlands, teen use of cannabis is approximately one third New Zealand’s youth usage rate.

NORML contends that political interference to safe access of medicinal cannabis is no longer justifiable. Cannabis has demonstrable therapeutic value. The physical and mental harms of cannabis are overstated and navigable. With the right tools, titration and quality control are readily addressed issues.

What we seek is not novel, nor unreasonable. We ask that medicinal cannabis is permitted to be used by consenting adults in consultation with their medical practitioners. Thank you.