9 August 2003
Politicians and medics have given a mixed reception to a long-awaited parliamentary report calling for the Government to consider making cannabis available as a prescription medicine.
Parliament's health select committee into cannabis tabled its 80-page report in Parliament yesterday.
The committee was charged with finding the most effective strategies to minimise the use of the drug and evaluate the harm it caused.
It found there was no evidence to suggest harmful effects for most occasional recreational cannabis users.
"Harmful acute and chronic effects of cannabis use are associated with frequent and heavier use," the report said.
The committee said the overriding aim of any cannabis legislation should be to prevent young people from using it.
But it suggested the nation was failing in this with more 15 to 17-year-olds using it, particularly young women. Drug education programmes in schools were failing and it questioned the use of suspension for pupils caught with cannabis.
There was evidence of a thriving black-market economy, and it quoted a 1998 study estimating the retail market was worth $84.3 million.
It called for first-time offenders to be diverted into health programmes.
It asked for more research into suggestions that Maori were more likely to be convicted of cannabis offences than non-Maori.
Police spokeswoman Sarah Martin said police were reviewing the use of diversion with the aim of achieving consistency.
New Zealand Medical Association chairwoman Tricia Briscoe said if cannabis was available on prescription it was important to find ways of delivering it in measured amounts and without causing lung damage.
Trials into cannabis use for patients with multiple sclerosis, cancer, or spinal cord damage are being done by British firm GW Pharmaceuticals. It is testing three delivery systems: a spray, a tablet which dissolves under the tongue, and an inhaler. Results are expected later this year.
But Jenny Boyer, manager of the Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinsons Society of Canterbury, said it was difficult to get conclusive evidence from trials with MS sufferers because they experienced unpredictable periods of relapse and remission.
David Fergusson, principal investigator for the long-running Christchurch Health and Development Study, said Parliament should not be involved in deciding what medicines should be available.
"This is a complete red herring. It is a decision which should be made by the medical profession on the basis of randomised trials, not politicians on the basis of advocacy and political pressure."
His group provided the committee with evidence that men, Maori, and people with previous convictions were more likely to be charged for cannabis use than others. He advocated a warning letter for first-time offenders.
There was broad political acceptance of the report with United Future leader Peter Dunne saying he was pleased with the recommendations over all.
Green MP Nandor Tanczos said it made a compelling case for change.
"The comment in the report that prohibition facilitates the black market and exposes cannabis users to harder drugs should make us all sit up and take notice," he said.
If cannabis was reclassified from a C1 to a C2 or C3 drug that would make medicinal use easier to regulate and remove police powers to search without a warrant.
"My personal belief is the number of arrests would then go down to 10 per cent of what they are now," Mr Tanczos said.
Tim Barnett, MP and justice committee chairman, said the report was likely to be discussed by his committee next week.
While the legal status of cannabis could not be changed under an agreement between Labour and United Future, Mr Barnett said it was important to keep the debate over decriminalisation alive. The current law was wrong and increased the harm caused by cannabis.
Committee member and National MP Lynda Scott made it clear she did not advocate decriminalising cannabis and did not think the report should be passed on to the justice committee. Progressive Coalition leader Jim Anderton said he was pleased the committee did not recommend a change in the legal status of cannabis, saying no consensus for change meant there was no mandate for change.
ACT said the recommendations were vague and would be of little value if enacted, while costly to implement.
The Drug Foundation said it was disappointed its suggestion of a formal warning with health information for first offenders had not been taken up.
Michael Britnell, deputy leader of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, has used cannabis to relieve lower back pain and said the report was "fantastic".
"But it's only a tiny way down the road. We want to see full legalisation for people over 18," he said.
The committee called for more research into cannabis use.
It asks the Institute of Environmental Science and Research:
To survey the level of THC (the active ingredient) in artificially grown cannabis.
To look into the possible relationship between cannabis and suicide in New Zealand by testing all suicide referrals for traces of all illegal drugs and alcohol.
To find a way of testing if a person is impaired by cannabis.
To test all people killed in road accidents for traces of illegal drugs.
The Government has 90 days to respond to the committee's report.
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