Cannabis referendum: This is about recreational use, not medicinal treatment

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"With the cannabis referendum fast approaching, arguments for and against the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use are being put forward by numerous interested parties."

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“With the cannabis referendum fast approaching, arguments for and against the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use are being put forward by numerous interested parties.”

OPINION: Suggesting that voting yes for recreational cannabis will mean better access for medicinal treatment is misleading at worst and disingenuous at best.

With the cannabis referendum fast approaching, arguments for and against the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use are being put forward by numerous interested parties.

As a GP I feel a duty to help ensure the public is properly informed when they cast their vote, they should know about the existing availability of medicinal cannabis and the potential risks of self-prescribing cannabis for health reasons.

I’m concerned that many voters have been led to believe a cannabis referendum ‘Yes vote’ equals a ‘Yes’ for medicinal cannabis. This is not the case; patients already have access to medicinal cannabis. It’s legal under the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme and currently available via prescription from doctors who can identify any potential drug interactions and adverse effects that may affect a patient.

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Should recreational cannabis be legalised it may become more commercially viable for local companies to also enter the medicinal cannabis market, however this is not a given. The Ministry of Health has set stringent requirements for the approval of new medicinal cannabis products and no new applications have been made to date.

"As a GP I feel a duty to help ensure the public is properly informed when they cast their vote", writes Dr Mark Hotu.

“As a GP I feel a duty to help ensure the public is properly informed when they cast their vote”, writes Dr Mark Hotu.

However, the public should be aware that legalising cannabis for recreational use isn’t a guarantee of better access to safe, tested and approved cannabis products for medicinal treatment.

There has also been some commentary about the high cost of medicinal cannabis. However, cases at my clinic offer examples to the contrary. I recently started a patient on a medicinal cannabis treatment that will cost them around $80 a month.

In contrast, another patient, who previously sourced their own weed for health reasons, was spending $400 a week. He’s now spending far less on medicinal cannabis. The cost of medicinal cannabis should not be an issue for anyone who is a low-income earner and has a genuine medical condition. At my clinic, we have plenty of patients who can access their medicinal cannabis treatment for free via available funding.

Furthermore, there are many reasons why the use of home-grown cannabis for medicinal treatment is unadvisable.

Admissions to psychiatric hospitals for marijuana induced psychosis will go through the roof. Over the last few years we’ve put millions of dollars into the prevention and treatment of mental illness. Speak to any health professional that works in this field and they’ll tell you the impact that marijuana has on psychosis. Increasing access will undoubtedly result in a surge in mental health admissions. 

Smoking cannabis comes with the same risk of lung damage as smoking cigarettes and let’s remember New Zealand has made a commitment to be smokefree by 2025.

Last year I was in Montreal at a medicinal cannabis summit and spoke to one of the clinical directors of Spectrum Therapeutics, the medical arm of Canada’s largest medicinal cannabis company. Prior to 2019, they increased production of their oral oils and capsules in preparation for the recreational market. When cannabis was finally legalised they ended up having to dump all those products because no one wanted them. Why? Because all people wanted to do was smoke. 

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The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill proposes to legalise cannabis for personal use.

Home-grown cannabis is not medicinal grade, the THC and CBD levels are unknown making effects on users unpredictable. A patient of mine experienced unexpected and unwanted side-effects from cannabis oil obtained from a green fairy. They were informed the cannabis oil had a high-CBD, low-THC ratio but described effects suggesting it contained much higher amounts of THC.

Even if suppliers provide a cannabis plant’s likely pharmacological characteristics, how the seed is grown and refined into a consumable form can affect the final product. Whereas medical-grade cannabis products receive Medsafe approval following proper testing and certification showing analysis of the CBD and THC levels.

Essentially we’re letting five million non-medically trained New Zealanders decide whether a controlled drug should be sold at the corner store. With this in mind, accurate information about cannabis and medicinal cannabis is crucial to ensure the public makes an informed decision when they cast their vote in the referendum.

Right now there’s a lot of smoke being blown about and as a GP and medicinal cannabis specialist I want to equip Kiwis with the facts.

This is a referendum on recreational cannabis use; medicinal cannabis is already legal and accessible.

Dr Mark Hotu is a GP and medicinal cannabis specialist at the Green Doctors clinic.

 

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