The National Party’s deputy leader and health spokesperson, Shane Reti, popped into the news yesterday because he was promoting a bill before Parliament which aimed to make medicinal cannabis more affordable and accessible.
The Greens Chloe Swarbrick was among the MPs who voted against the bill, among other reasons because …
“It represents a highly pharmaceuticalised, commercial model…”
Does this mean she wants amateur growers to get a slice of the medicinal action? Or gang members?
Reti told RNZ the bill had three key points: cannabis with low THC could be obtained over the counter; it improved the MedSafe consenting process; and the prescribing regime would be pharmacy dispensing, such as in the US.
Moreover, the bill addressed some issues under the current regime, such as tightening up the eligibility of who can manufacture medicinal cannabis.
A key consideration was that two years after the medicinal cannabis law took effect
“ … we have no new affordable products on the shelf and we need to change that really quickly.”
Many doctors were sceptical about prescribing medicinal cannabis, largely because no education campaign and code of practice had been developed, Reti insisted..
The lobby group Medical Cannabis Awareness NZ gave credence to these concerns last month, saying the Government’s scheme to give patients access to medicinal cannabis is failing.
It called on agencies to investigate the wide-ranging complaints it had received, such as charging too much, dispensing the drug without instructions on how to use it and withholding prescriptions from patients entirely.
An article in New Zealand Doctor, quoting industry representatives, similarly said the new Medicinal Cannabis Scheme is being undermined with a significant volume of unregulated imports of unknown quality and consistency readily available.
Some medical practitioners are importing products containing cannabis, including gummy bears, and selling directly to patients using a legal loophole in Section 25 of the Medicines Act. Other sellers are ignoring the law and selling unapproved cannabis products online without prescription.
Licensed medicinal cannabis producers and distributors, working within the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme rules, say they will not be able to compete on price with these unregulated products of unknown origin and quality.
Reti told RNZ he did not know if Labour would support the bill.
He now knows. It was defeated by 77 votes to 43 and was supported only by the Nats and ACT.
And so Reti issued a press statement today in which he complains that a Member’s Bill that would make New Zealand’s medicinal cannabis scheme more affordable and more accessible to those that need it has been voted down by the Labour Government.
“National first announced this legislation in 2018 and encouraged the Government to pick up the enormous amount of work we had done to ensure New Zealand in need could access high quality medicinal cannabis products sooner rather than later.
“But Labour wasn’t interested.”
It wasn’t interested because – as Dr Gaurav Sharma, Labour MP for Hamilton West, argued during the first reading debate – the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill (No 2) aimed to establish a medicinal cannabis scheme that already exists.
“The Government has already established a medicinal cannabis scheme, which was the No. 1 bill, hence why we’re talking about the No. 2 bill”.
Sharma set out the history:
In December 2017, the government introduced the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill, which first sought to introduce a medicinal scheme to enable access to quality products; to introduce a statutory defence for terminally ill people to possess and use illicit cannabis; and to remove Cannabidiol from the schedule of controlled drugs.
In December 2018, after careful consideration by the Health Committee , the Bill was passed, including a statutory defence instead specifically for people eligible to receive palliative care.
In July 2019, the Ministry of Health began a four-week public consultation on the proposed regulation and standards for medicinal cannabis and in December 2019, the final regulations were released to take effect in April last year.
The medicinal cannabis scheme came into force last April, to improve access to quality medicinal cannabis products for patients.
Under this scheme, the medicinal cannabis products are only available to patients on prescription from a doctor. Manufacturers and importers are required to provide evidence to the medicinal cannabis agency that they consistently meet minimum requirements standards of quality before they can be supplied.
People who want to work in the industry or they need to work for a person or company that holds a licence. The licence will specify the types of activities that a licence holder may carry out such as a commercial cultivation of cannabis, manufacturing or supply of medicinal cannabis products.
The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill (No 2) as proposed by Dr Shane Reti was intended to provide a medicinal cannabis scheme, but it already exists. The scheme already exists and went through due diligence, after two years of going through a process in this House.
The No. 2 bill would cement the primary legislation features of the medicinal cannabis scheme that already exists, which must remain flexible because we want the experts to keep pace with the emerging industry techniques that are coming out and to respond to these.
But the Nats reckon the law needs amending, among other things because (according to Reti’s press statement)
… the Government’s regulations now include those convicted for murder and still in prison eligible to apply for a medicinal cannabis manufacturing licence; for active gang members to be employed in the manufacturing of medicinal cannabis; and allows cannabis to be grown near sensitive areas such as wahi tapu and schools.
National on the other hand put forward a comprehensive alternative that made sure New Zealanders had greater access to high quality medicinal cannabis products but also had the right regulatory and legislative controls in place.
Reti contended the National bill provided safe, best practice mechanisms for rapidly accelerating the availability of medicinal cannabis products and for a dispensing and monitoring framework that would stand the test of time.
Hansard’s record of the debate shows he emphasised six proposals from the bill on how retail accessibility and affordability could be accelerated (eg by positioning low-dose medicinal cannabis products on the over-the-counter framework, the controlled importing of approved quality, low-dose product, GP prescribing without specialist co-signing and pharmacy dispensing).
He also highlighted the need to tighten the regulations around licence eligibility and locations.
“It is wrong that an inmate who is currently in prison for a serious offence such as murder is eligible for a medicinal cannabis licence, and that active gang members can be employed in the industry. It is also wrong that medicinal cannabis can be grown beside a wāhi tapu and a school.”
On the other side of the argument, MPs who rarely make it into the headlines were called on to do some of the heavy lifting.
Anahila Kanongata’s-Suisuiki, Labour echoed Gaurav Sharma in saying
“ … I get a feeling that this bill seeks to establish a medicinal cannabis scheme that already exists.”
“ I think the medicinal cannabis scheme is now up and running, and a range of further medicinal cannabis products will be available over time.
She challenged Reti to explain how active gang members could be identified.
Labour MP Liz Craig’ objections to the bill included its title;
“ … not so much the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill, but the (No 2) bit that follows on, because I think that (No 2) bit—I’m not a lawyer but my understanding is it is because you’ve had a bill with exactly the same name occurring before you’ve had this bill. I think the issue that we’ve got is that this same bill was introduced back in 2017, and there was a big focus back then on access to medicinal cannabis.”
Enactment was another issue for Craig:
“In the explanatory note, clause 2, the commencement clause “provides that the Bill comes into force 12 months after the Bill receives the Royal assent.” But elsewhere the bill says the Act comes into force six months after the date in which it receives Royal assent.
“I’m not quite sure, again, what one does if you’ve got different dates.”
Point of Order’s suggests this sort of confusion is easily sorted out: MPs can simply amend the bill to remove the discrepancy.
The Greens’ Chloe Swarbrick had several complaints. Among them, she took issue with the Nats’ failure to recognise bills on the issue by colleague Julie Anne Genter or – in 2009 – former Green co-leaderMetiria Turei.
“ … I’m gutted to hear Dr Shane Reti talk about how there was somehow this competition of ideas between National and Labour, neglecting the fact that his bill has the literal title of No 2 because my bill came first.
“On top of that, there is the point that was made by Simon Bridges about how I am boring on this subject…
“So it will come as no surprise to Dr Shane Reti that the Greens are not supporting this bill tonight, and he knows that because he didn’t approach us to talk to us about it, which means that he’d probably done the numbers and realised the way that the chips were going to fall.”
But the major reasons for the Greens opposing the bill – Swarbrick explained– was its substance:
“It represents a highly pharmaceuticalised, commercial model, which will not increase access, nor improve affordability for patients.”
Swarbrick noted that a majority of New Zealanders will have used cannabis but only a small proportion “carry a criminal liability” for having done so.
The Greens did not support a legal framework that perpetuated those injustices.