Greens' cannabis bill stubbed out

Chloe Swarbrick's bill would have included chronic pain suffers, approved by a doctor. Photo:...
Chloe Swarbrick's bill would have included chronic pain suffers, approved by a doctor. Photo: supplied

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick’s bill on medicinal cannabis has been stubbed out in Parliament.

In an emotive debate at the first reading, the bill was voted down by 73 votes to 47 in a conscience vote yesterday.

All Green MPs, most Labour MPs and Act’s David Seymour supported the bill. The National Party opposed it - though it allowed MPs with strong feelings to cross the floor - and most if not all NZ First MPs voted against it.

The vote comes a day after the Government’s bill on medicinal cannabis passed its first reading unanimously. The Government bill would create a legal defence for cannabis use for those who have less than 12 months to live, but it has been criticised for excluding those who suffer from chronic pain.

Swarbrick’s bill would have included chronic pain suffers, approved by a doctor. It would also have allowed anyone with a prescription to use, possess and grow cannabis to treat a qualifying medical condition, as well as nominate someone to grow cannabis for them.

This provision had been criticised as a licence to “grow your own dope”, but also lauded as a way to drop the price of medicinal cannabis, which currently costs about $1200 a month.

During her first reading speech, Swarbrick said it was “quite frankly, ludicrous” to suggest that the bill would lead to people pretending to be ill, or seeking cannabis for toothaches.

“New Zealand health professionals do not hand out pain medication willy-nilly.”

She pointed to a Curia poll in mid-2017 that showed that 78 per cent of New Zealanders supported growing and/or using medicinal cannabis for any medical reason, and called on National MPs to “stick their neck out and be on the right side of history”.

“We cannot pretend that this is not a problem. It is a problem because people are suffering. People presently risk going to jail for helping their friends and whanau. We have an opportunity, a moral obligation, to forge a better path forward.”

But National’s health spokesman and former doctor Jonathan Coleman said the bill was “deeply flawed”.

“I’ve dealt with many patients with chronic pain ... Pain is very hard to disprove. I know this is not the member’s intent, but this will be de facto decriminalisation.”

He was concerned about unregulated products and said the Government bill on medicinal cannabis had a regulation-making power to ensure safe and quality products.

National MP Nikki Kaye said she had never been so “deeply conflicted” about a bill and spoke about her own experience with pain when she had breast cancer.

She said it was “abhorrent” to think that her vote could deny patients the chance to ease their pain through medicinal cannabis.

But she said she also had family members “deeply affected” by drugs and, as Education Minister, had been told by many young, struggling people that their issues has started with drug addiction.

She said she would not vote for the bill, but pledged to work with the bill’s supporters to expand access in the Government bill to include those suffering from chronic pain.

“It’s one of the toughest political decisions I’ve ever had to make.”

And she sat down, a person in the public gallery cried out: “Because it’s not your husband dying.”

Labour MP Greg O’Connor opposed the bill, saying it would lead to a cannabis market “with the medical profession as gatekeepers”, and while Labour MP Liz Craig voted in favour, she was unlikely to vote for the bill beyond the first reading.

“There are lots of issues around the quality of supply,” Craig said. “The other concern I have is around the broad definition around a qualifying condition.”

NZ First MP Jenny Marcroft said the bill would allow “casual exposure” of cannabis to youth, and she struggled with the bill’s lack of control on home-grown cannabis.

“What are the dosage labels on a plant? How, for example, will someone’s heart medications interact or react with cannabis or THC?

“Is it really a medicine when there are no controls?”

Swarbrick, in her reply, said her bill did contained a clause to potentially regulate medicinal cannabis, and that could be improved at select committee.

Act leader David Seymour said he did not like marijuana, having tried it once and “getting very hungry” and then never doing it again.

But politicians are lawmakers, he said, and the prohibition of cannabis had been ineffective.

“Most of the current suppliers do not follow the Consumers Guarantees Act, and they don’t issue refunds.”

He said more National MPs would support the bill in the absence of the Government’s bill, and asked them to skip across the floor like Sound of Music singer Julie Andrews.

But National MP Chris Bishop, who had earlier indicated support for the bill, was unmoved. He opposed it in the hope that the Government bill would be improved at select committee.

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