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The former minister responsible for drug law reform is calling the Government's Bill on medicinal cannabis "half baked'' and "a pretty sad gimmick'' that fails to give sick people immediate access to good products.
The Government introduced the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill at the end of last year, which would develop a regime to ensure quality of domestic and imported products.
But it is expected to be two years before products are made and sold in New Zealand, so the Bill includes a provision to decriminalise the use of cannabis for patients with a terminal illness, defined as having less than 12 months to live.
Peter Dunne, the former associate health minister, said the Bill was underwhelming and the product of a naive 100-day pledge.
"They thought in Opposition, 'How difficult is it to solve this problem? We'll get in and sort it out in 100 days.'
"It's a pretty sad gimmick. It doesn't really change anything. It doesn't improve immediate access to people and it doesn't do anything about the cost of medication.
"They allowed an impression to be created, whether they intended to or not, that they could solve the problem with the wave of a wand. A lot of people who were suffering believed that, and they feel pretty let down.''
He said the Bill was "half-baked'', adding that it would have been more honest to say the work simply needed longer than the 100-day timeline.
"When they actually got to grips with the subject and found that wasn't really possible [to fix in 100 days], so they said, `What can we do? I know. We will put in this stuff about compassionate use.' People are not being prosecuted for compassionate use now.''
Defining who decriminalisation applied to was "fraught with difficulty''.
"When do you begin your last year of life? Becoming too specific in definitions may create more barriers rather than loosen some of them that are there at the moment.''
Health Minister David Clark has said New Zealand will monitor the situation in Australia, where medicinal cannabis was made legal in 2016 and companies are preparing to deliver domestically made products within a few months.
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt announced a law change last week to allow Australian companies to export medicinal cannabis products, saying: "We would like to be, potentially, the world's No1 medicinal cannabis supplier.''
Mr Dunne said rather than monitoring Australia, New Zealand should be "piggy-backing'' so quality products would be available to New Zealand patients at the same time as they were to Australians.
"Working with the Australians is likely to produce the quickest and best benefit. We have a free-trade agreement.
"The medical safety standards in Australia and New Zealand are pretty much identical. So anything that would get the tick there should get the tick here.''
Advocates of medicinal cannabis have cautioned against a scheme similar to Australia's because they say it favours large, corporate manufacturers.
But Mr Dunne disagreed, saying it helped to ensure quality.
"You've got to have a quality product and, inevitably, more established manufacturers are likely to be able to meet those standards than someone who stands up and says, `Hey, I can grow a crop and wouldn't it be nice'.''
New Zealand patients currently have two medicinal products available, pending sign-off from the Health Ministry. Sativex costs about $1200 a month, and an oil made by Canadian company Tilray costs about $600 a month. Neither is subsidised by Pharmac.
The Government Bill was softened to gain the support of New Zealand First, and should pass with the support of the Greens.
It does not go as far as Green MP Chloe Swarbrick's member's Bill, which would allow anyone with a qualifying medical condition to grow, possess or use the cannabis plant or cannabis products for therapeutic purposes, provided they have the support of a registered medical practitioner.
The Government has said those wishing for medicinal cannabis to be more widely available will have a chance to have their say when Ms Swarbrick's Bill has its first reading, expected to be a conscience vote. - NZN