Helen Kelly has not always agreed with The New Zealand Initiative on regulatory issues, but on the issue of medical marijuana, we certainly agree with her.
The outgoing Council of Trade Unions president is wanting to use medical marijuana for her own terminal illness. In the absence of medical approval, Kelly has used the black market to obtain the drug.
She acknowledges the therapeutic properties, but also the risks: “It just seems absolutely insane that I’ve got no idea what I’m taking, how much I should take or how it’s manufactured – it’s crazy.”
Kelly is not wrong. Because the drug is outside the realm of government safety and regulation, the quality and potency will be unpredictable.
Another less acknowledged consequence of prohibition is that the evidence-base is equally inconsistent.
A simple Google search will tell you there is not a lot of credible or accessible information out there. There is even less if you confine your search to neutral sources.
If I was a desperate mother wanting to know whether medical marijuana would be an option for my sick child, I would not know what sources to trust. Or even how to apply.
The evidence of effectiveness is mixed, and only one patient’s application so far – Alex Renton’s – followed the correct process.
Effective or not, prohibition does the evidence base no favours, by limiting the research and evidence required to support safe consumption.
Clinical trials have been illegal in many of the countries New Zealand would look to for regulatory guidance (though random-control trials are now underway in Israel and the United States). Anecdotal evidence and case studies would be equally thin in this context.
The current case-by-case process may also hide medical professionals’ support for the product, who must apply on behalf of their patient. It is certainly conceivable that doctors would be unwilling to recommend a medication without robust evidence.
Additionally, it is also possible that medical professionals would want to avoid the reputational effects of being the only doctor in town associated with a controversial substance. Not all doctors want to be thrust into the political sphere.
Sometimes though, banning risky behaviour just makes the risk even more risky. So in a rare move of supporting more regulation, I say lift the prohibition and apply the appropriate safety rules.