New Zealand moves toward medical marijuana —and legalization

Posted on June 9th, 2018 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , , .

OceaniaThe government of New Zealand has announced that it plans to hold a referendum on cannabis legalization, possibly as early as next year. A medical marijuana bill is already pending in the country's parliament. But it has taken generations of activist effort by Kiwis to bring Aotearoa (by the country's indigenous Maori name) to this point. Cannabis Now speaks with some of the leaders who made it happen.

Putting the question of cannabis legalization before New Zealand's voters was a condition of the power-sharing deal the center-left Labour Party worked out with the Green Party in order to forge a parliamentary majority bloc following last September's general election. The government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has now announced that it may make good on this promise to the Greens in the coming year.

But the government is debating whether to hold the referendum in 2019 because of fears that holding it in the 2020 general election could be a bad move politically—speaking to the stigma that still surrounds the issue. Justice Minister Andrew Little admitted this was a consideration in recent comments to Radio New Zealand. Another RNZ report indicates that the referendum will be non-binding, and the government won't commit to following the will of the voters. So cannabis advocates still have plenty of work ahead of them.

Hearteningly, the balance of power is more favorable than it's been for many years. The Greens hold eight of 120 seats in New Zealand's Parliament, and make up one pillar of the ruling coalition with Labour and the populist New Zealand First.

Green MP speaks on the way forward
Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick, reached by Cannabis Now, credited her party with providing the impetus for the referendum plan. She said via e-mail: "It's something the Greens have campaigned on for decades, alongside the rest of our evidence-based policies, because the war on drugs is worse than an abject failure – it’s multiplied harm."

As for medicinal cannabis, New Zealand made a small step toward that last October, when the Health Ministry allowed medical practitioners to prescribe CBD products—despite the government's position that cannabidiol is a controlled substance under the 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act (MoDA). Canadian-produced CBD oil has been approved for import. The price, however, is prohibitive. Patients are awaiting passage of the medical marijuana bill.

According to Swarbrick, the medical bill "has passed its first reading and is currently before the Health Select Committee. They are working through thousands of submissions from members of the public, and are due to report back to the House at the end of July this year.... This means it should be an Act by the end of 2018, if not early 2019. We—the Greens—are hoping, however, that the legislation is expanded to be more progressive and comprehensive..."

Swarbrick is not optimistic on addressing the two most serious limitations of the bill. First, it contains no provisions for use of herbaceous cannabis or for home cultivation. Secondly, it does not actually establish the terms for a medical marijuana program, but mandates the Health Ministry to do so. With the Greens' broader version of the bill voted down, the Select Committee is reviewing the more limited version. "It's not within the Committee's powers to completely re-write a bill, so it's unfortunately very unlikely that those delegated powers to the Ministry will be replaced," Swarbrick says. "We will, however, continue the hard work alongside community organizations to ensure the Bill is in the best shape, and as transparent in its intentions as possible."

But the battle isn't over. Swarbrick does hold out hope for herbaceous use and home cultivation "potentially being explored and implemented by the Ministry of Health by way of its delegated powers. To see this happen, however, it’d be useful to have that as an explicit consideration for the Ministry in this legislation, so that there’s certainty of it being considered."

Testing the limits of the law
Medical marijuana campaigner Rose Renton, of Nelson on the South Island, is among those who helped press this issue—and may yet pay for it with her freedom. She faces up to 14 years in prison for supplying chronic pain sufferers and hospice patients with CBD products she produced herself. Cultivation is among the charges she faces, as New Zealand news site Stuff reported when she first appeared in court in October. Locally known as the "Green Fairy," Renton presented a petition with nearly 18,000 signatures to Parliament last year demanding legal, safe and affordable access to medicinal cannabis. And the issue is personal for Renton. Her son, Alex Renton, was the first New Zealander to be treated with CBD oil. He died in July 2015 after being hospitalized in a "status epilepticus"—a kind of prolonged seizure.

Renton told Cannabis Now that a medical necessity defense is among the options she is considering. "Medical necessity has been spoken about." she said. "We are keeping our options open regarding defense still... I have patient affidavits, and an experienced pain specialist here in Nelson and a [general practitioner], who will happily support our defense. They all refer patients directly to me."  Her next court date is in August, and trial looks likely in the spring.

Renton is being represented by activist attorney Sue Grey, who told Stuff in January that she hopes the case will result in a formal recognition that CBD is not covered by the MoDA. Speaking to Cannabis Now, Grey described the problems with the status quo: "The limited available imported CBD products tend to be expensive, and few subsidies are available. Although we have had licensed hemp growers for many years, they have not been allowed to use their crop for medicinal purposes. The NZ government is currently in a catch-up mode. Meanwhile our sick and dying are waiting hopefully."

Another Kiwi freedom fighter is California-born Rebecca "Redwood" Reider, now of Golden Bay, just north of Nelson. Stuff calls her "The woman who legally brought cannabis into New Zealand without a sniff from Customs."

As she related to Cannabis Now, "My lawyer [Sue Grey] found a loophole in the MoDA, allowing possession of a one-month supply of a controlled drug purchased abroad legally for medical purposes." Although this loophole was added to the law with pharmaceuticals rather than cannabis in mind, Renton flew to Hawaii in August 2016, where she purchased state-legal medicinal cannabis for the chronic pain she suffers from. Then she flew home, and declared the cannabis to the customs agents at the Auckland airport. "It was pretty surreal actually," she recalls, "with the media and cameras waiting at the airport." She had alerted the press beforehand so they would be there to document it in case there was trouble. There wasn't. She was allowed in with her cannabis.

 "My case added fuel to the fire," she says. "People were fascinated by this exception allowing them to bring in cannabis legally."

In response to the hoopla, however, the Health Ministry changed its interpreatation of law, arguing it is only US federal law that should be recognzied—not the state medical marijuana laws.

Earlier in 2016, Reider had also faced charges for importing cannabis-infused chocolate bars into New Zealand. That case resulted in "discharge without conviction"—basically meaning that the charge is dropped, despite a formal finding of guilt. This was another win for Reider.

Reider notes that when the formerly ruling right-wing National Party was chucked out of power in last year's election, Labour and its coalition partners pledged that a medical marijuana law would be passed within their first 100 days. And indeed, the bill wasa submitted by the new government shortly after it took office. But this rush may help account for its shortcomings. One provision included to appease advocates would immediately (even before the Health Ministry program is up and running) remove penalties for medicinal cannabis use by terminal patients.

Reider finds this provision to be "ridiculous."

"People deserve compassion throughout their lives, not just the last 12 months," she told Cannabis Now. "And how do you know they're gonna die? Cannabis can extend life, so this opens a real paradox."

Reider, who works as a journalist and coordinator of Organic Winegrowers NZ, also expresses hope that parliament will respond to pressure to fix the law before ti passes, noting that an impressive 2,000 written comments were submitted by the public to the committee reviewing the legislation.

The Cannabis Museum
A longer view of New Zealand's journey to the cusp of legalization is provided by Abe Gray, curator of the Whakamana Cannabis Museum in the South Island city of Dunedin.

Gray is also a transplant from the US. Originally from Minneapolis, he says he was inspired to come to New Zealand in 2001 after reading about then-Green parliamentarian Nandor Tanczos—a dreadlocked white Rastafarian, who was pushing for cannabis decriminalization. At his urging, parliament's Health Select Committee opened a "Cannabis Inquiry" that did indeed bring back recommendations for decrim.  But in horse-trading after the 2002 election, the Greens were bumped from the Labour-led coalition, and it did not come to pass.

Still, the hopes raised "changed my life," Gray says. He transferred to Dunedin's University of Otago, where he taught botany as a teaching assistant and became a "cannabis protester." He says he was surprised to find his campus activist group "targeted by undercover police operations, when I thought I was coming to a Rasta utopia."

Gray calls his museum a "hybrid of the two approaches"—science and activism. It first opened five years ago, but just moved to a more prominent location in Dunedin. He describes its mission as "bringing basic cannabis biology, history and politics to the general public."

The name whakamana (the "wh" is pronounced like an f) is actually a Maori word, "linked to indigenous protest movements," Gray says. Mana means "chiefliness," or status, respect. Whaka means restoring. So the compound term means restoring the mana of the Maori people.

"And we're restoring the mana of the cannabis plant by refuting the propaganda of prohibition," Gray explains.

With the Green Party back in government, the long activist efforts in Aotearoa may be about to pay off.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now


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