Don’t be a dope about medicinal cannabis

A vial of processed medicinal cannabis product.

It’s that time of the year when old-school motorcyclists start prepping their kit for the hardcore motorcycle rally of choice, the Brass Monkey Rally.

Now in its 38th year, the June event sees about 2000 motorcyclists convene on a frozen ridgeline in Central Otago’s bleakly beautiful Maniototo Plain.

Gathering around a bonfire the size of Premier House, lies will be told, problems of the world solved and old friendships renewed.

In my case I’m lucky enough to have done the event with the same core group of maladjusted men and women for some 23 years now. Along the way a couple have self-selected out, deciding that riding frozen roads in Central and 10 hour deluges down the West Coast is not as good as it sounds.

Some have sadly passed away, others have moved on to more intrepid adventures, while a couple no longer have the blessing of choice.

One of these is my mate Nick.

Nick is a commercial property and urban regeneration big shot, but I got to know him as the guy to have on point in front of you as you negotiated a set of twisties. Nick handled his Ducati 996 like a scalpel, carving perfect corners out of unfriendly macadam and off camber curves.

If you tucked in behind him, you knew you’d be fast and smooth. That is, if you could keep up.

Mike O'Donnell: "Getting this right from a commercial perspective is key."

Mike O’Donnell: “Getting this right from a commercial perspective is key.”

A few years ago, Nick disappeared from the Monkey ecosystem. Weird, given his passion for the ride and obvious enjoyment of the fraternity. Turned out, it wasn’t by choice.

Nick was diagnosed with progressive Multiple Sclerosis (MS). His variant is a slow but inexorable, progressive disease affecting his brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. This brings poor balance, blurred vision, restricted mobility and pain. A lot of pain.

Since 2014, Nick has taken part in the trial of a new drug called MIS416, a drug that helped him by increasing mobility, reducing fatigue and mitigating pain. A trial that now is being canned, and a drug that will no longer be available.

Once this happens, Nick’s doctors have told him that there is no effective drug therapy available other than medical cannabis.

Nick’s not alone. There are tens of thousands of Kiwis with degenerative diseases who have to rely on a cocktail of synthetics with limited upsides but extensive downsides.

Mike O'Donnell has been riding the Brass Monkey with the same group for many years.

Mike O’Donnell has been riding the Brass Monkey with the same group for many years.

Given recent events around cannabis reform, I’d been hopeful that change was coming.

Last April, the Government agreed to have the Food Standards Code modified to allow the sale of low-THC hemp food products in New Zealand; a move that was business-friendly.

Then in July, the Ministry of Health confirmed it was lifting restrictions on cannabidiol. As a result, some doctors were able prescribing products containing CBD without ministry approval.

More recently, there have been positive signs under the new Government, with the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill. This bill seeks to amend the 1975 Act to improve access to medical cannabis with the aim of providing something fair, safe and compassionate.

It will do that by introducing an exception and statutory defence for the terminally ill to own and use cannabis.

Over recent weeks, the Health Select Committee has been hearing oral submissions from a range of folk who will miss out under the bill, ranging from those with degenerative and painful diseases like Nick, through to those with milder conditions.

As it stands the bill will not apply to anyone but those with less than 12 months to live. It will allow the terminally ill to die with dignity and free of pain, but won’t provide the same benefit to the chronically ill who still live. That doesn’t seem fair to me.

The bill would also provide a regulation-making power to enable the setting of minimum quality standards that cannabis products manufactured, imported and supplied under licence must meet for consumption as a painkiller.

Getting this right from a commercial perspective is key. As I wrote last year, at the moment there is a sizable nascent industry around medical cannabis waiting for clarity.

Farmers like South Canterbury’s David Musgrave are doing innovative things growing hemp as food, as well as more traditional farmers growing it for fibre or animal food.

Farmers would benefit from the development of quality standards which they can use to market their crops. Quality standards that could grow out of the current bill and potentially lead to what the New Zealand Drug Foundation calls a “responsible legal regulation”. This being the mid-point of a continuum from unregulated legal market to unregulated illegal market.

But first things first. There is no medical, practical or humane reason to only provide medical cannabis to the doomed. The living deserve better. Germany and Canada have made the move already. New Zealand needs to get its act together. I pray the select committee will not let party politics get in the way of a humane decision.

Sadly I’ll never see my mate Nick astride his beloved Ducati 996 again. But it would be just as good to see his face free of the pain that haunts him every day.


A vial of processed medicinal cannabis product.


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