Cannabis winds of change

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New Zealand drug policy in general and particularly that relating to cannabis, easily our most popular illegal drug, is deserving of careful consideration.
It was pleasing, therefore, to read of National MP Michael Woodhouse’s intention to maintain an open mind on what he describes as the ‘‘vexed issue’’ of cannabis law reform (The Star, August 19).
Increasingly, we see media attention highlighting debate on the place of cannabis in contemporary society. This should come as no surprise. Comparing internationally, our per capita use of cannabis is among the world’s highest. In 2015, Ministry of Health research revealed that 400,000 New Zealanders are regular consumers of cannabis and that 42% of these identify some medicinal value in their use.
Medicinal use of cannabis especially is regularly in the news. The New Zealand Herald (August 21) reported on a Golden Bay resident with a United States prescription for herbal cannabis arriving at Auckland Airport with a month’s supply, which she successfully brought through Customs.
While the informal use of medicinal cannabis is frequently reported, there is also a developing scientific interest in its medicinal properties. Auckland University associate professor of pharmacology Michelle Glass has been awarded a $157,000 research grant to investigate the use of cannabis in treating brain cancer.
New Zealanders’ growing acceptance that cannabis may provide benefits and should therefore be removed from under the shadow of prohibition is reflected in our most recent poll on people’s preferences for cannabis policy.
In the poll, conducted by the New Zealand Drug Foundation, 80% agreed that medicinal cannabis should be legally available. Perhaps surprisingly, however, almost 65% agreed that personal use of small amounts of cannabis should either be legalised or decriminalised.
Commenting in the Otago Daily Times (August 15), Drug Foundation chief executive Ross Bell observed that these results should embolden politicians.
‘‘Support for reform is now a majority position.’’
Nonetheless the Prime Minister, quoted in the same article, reiterated National’s position that it has no agenda for reform.
While National MP Michael Woodhouse’s open-mindedness may offer a ray of hope for reformers, his invoking the spectre of legal highs to justify the status quo suggests he may be less open to change than he claims.
With 95% of synthetic cannabis users having previously used cannabis, if New Zealand had decriminalised cannabis previously, it is unlikely that the market for synthetics would have existed. This appears to be the case in the Netherlands, where cannabis was decriminalised 40 years ago.
– Geoff Noller is a Dunedin medical anthropologist with a special interest in drug use as a cultural practice. He and colleagues are preparing to undertake New Zealand’s first formal study of patients using cannabis as medicine.