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Cannabis floodgates have not been opened, promises Peter Dunne

by Peter Dunne
This week I approved the use of a medicinal cannabis product (actually a hemp derivative) in the case of a critically ill Wellington teenager.

The decision was an unremarkable, as it was fair and obvious. To have done otherwise in the particular circumstances would have been heartless in the extreme. The public protests and the sentiments of the well-meaning worthies counted for nothing with me in this case. It was much more a matter of plain old common sense.

In the wake of that decision there have been many wrong and naïve conclusions from the enthusiasts and the antagonists that the floodgates have been opened, and that the widespread availability of medicinal cannabis of every type for all manner of aches and pains is now just around the corner. How wrong they are!

Nothing has changed. No precedent has been created. All that has happened is that a long available procedure by which doctors can seek approval for the use of a restricted product in the treatment of a particular condition has been utilised for the first time to access a medicinal cannabis product in an extreme case.

As for the wider issue, I said a couple of months ago that I had sought advice from officials on developing international trends and their relevance to New Zealand. That work is ongoing, and we are monitoring developments in a number of jurisdictions, Australia and the United States in particular, to determine the best approach to take in the public interest of New Zealanders.

Whatever we do, it is important to note that we will treat medicinal cannabis no differently to other new medicinal products seeking entry to the New Zealand market. Medsafe employs a rigorous evidence and clinical trial based process for registering and approving new medicines, and that will be followed in this instance. It should also be noted that there are no pharmaceutical manufacturers currently seeking to introduce cannabis based medicines into New Zealand. It is not the Government’s role to overturn or upend an established process for any prospective new medicine in any circumstances, so any medicinal cannabis based products will be treated no differently in that regard.

It is important too to note that medicinal cannabis products are in the main sprays or oils. No-one is talking about the cannabis leaf, so those who argue that just a few puffs have a medicinal benefit and they should be allowed to cultivate what they need are woefully out of touch. Whatever else may happen, changing the legal status of the cannabis leaf is not on the Government’s agenda, nor even its distant horizon.

Some have hailed this week’s decision as the start of a “sensible” discussion of drug policy. I am deeply suspicious of that pejorative approbation – those making that call are invariably cannabis legalisation advocates, best ignored as just one more vested interest.

No, this week’s decision was simply the practical exercise of compassion and balance in an extremely tragic and unusual case.

Peter Dunne is associate Minister of Health, and MP for Ohariu.