May 21, 2019 Stone the crows
AHorizon Research survey of 1156 New Zealanders, commissioned by licensed medicinal cannabis company Helius Therapeutics, has reportedly found that 14 per cent of us will definitely try to access medicinal cannabis products when they become more widely and legally available, with another 10 per cent most likely, or somewhat likely, to go looking for them.
Twenty-three per cent said they were most unlikely to use them, 22 per cent definitely won’t, and 12 per cent weren’t sure.
One would hope that those figures would give pause to the politicians who are designing the regulations, licensing rules and quality standards around medicinal cannabis, which will then become part of the Misuse of Drugs Act, but they probably won’t.
Apart from suggesting that the canny investor might look at buying shares in the companies that will manufacture and market these drugs, the survey results could be read in several ways. Perhaps we are in poorer health than most of us imagined, given that so many of us are hanging out for products that are not yet available as a more effective substitute for the drugs we are currently being treated with.
Perhaps 24 per cent of us are living with a terminal condition and are awaiting the opportunity to use medicinal cannabis products to ease our passing from this life to the next. Or perhaps some of the 24 per cent erroneously see the introduction of medicinal cannabis as the next best thing to legalisation of the drug in its more familiar form.
Helius Therapeutics’ executive director, Paul Manning, was quoted last week as saying that the 14 per cent who would definitely try to access medicinal cannabis products represented “phenomenal” demand, a “groundswell” of demand, and a timely reminder that New Zealanders were increasingly seeing cannabis as a mainstream health
Perhaps. More likely it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the potential benefits of medicinal cannabis. Surely there cannot be that many of us who believe we need it to treat the narrow band of ailments that it can supposedly ameliorate, or who are dying and can find no other drug that will control our pain.
The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners’ medical director, Dr Richard Medlicott, said he wasn’t surprised by the survey result, although the point of amending the Misuse of Drugs Act was to make medicinal cannabis more available to those suffering a terminal illness or chronic pain. The bill had had quite a high profile, he said, as had plans for a referendum on “wider cannabis issues” (personal use), so a lot of people had being thinking about these issues.
An earlier Helius-commissioned survey of almost 1100 medical professionals revealed that around twothirds of GPs and three-quarters of head pharmacists had been asked for medicinal cannabis products over the past year.
Eighty-nine per cent of medical professionals said they would prescribe the products for one or more of 20 medical conditions, if they had enough information, but only 6 per cent regarded themselves as very well informed about the products.
Perhaps cannabis has more widespread medicinal benefits than those without expertise in the field, the writer included, had imagined, and it may be no bad thing if extracts of the plant were to supersede some of the ‘mainstream’ drugs we currently use. It is certainly difficult to mount a compelling argument against its use by those who genuinely need it to ease their pain or symptoms.
Many drugs are derived from plants, and there is no reason to reject this one purely because, used in another form, it can be hugely damaging. The bigger issue is the impact of legalising cannabis for ‘recreational’ use — recreational in this context meaning occasional use for enjoyment. The benign picture that paints is surely misleading.
As we brace ourselves for next year’s referendum on legalising the use of cannabis, we can only hope that those who plan to vote are also considering the collateral issues, such as the role cannabis use plays in the road toll.
According to Opposition leader Simon Bridges, in 2017 illicit drugs played a role in 79 deaths on New Zealand roads, compared with alcohol’s contribution to 70 deaths. Some go further, saying Ministry of Transport data showed drugs were “the reason” for 21 per cent of fatal crashes in 2017, 3 per cent more than alcohol. Whether drug use actually caused those fatalities might be a moot point, but the UK, Canada and Australia are all taking it seriously enough to have introduced roadside drug-driving tests.
Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter is on the record as saying those tests are too intrusive for her liking. Some would consider dying as a result of encountering a driver under the influence of drugs is also on a little on the intrusive side.
Ms Genter has also offered the view that, “unlike alcohol breath tests”, drug tests can only detect the presence of drugs or medication. They cannot test if a driver is impaired.
Say again? An alcohol test simply establishes the presence of alcohol in the driver’s breath or blood. It does not determine any degree of impairment. There will be many, many drivers who have been fined for driving with more than 250 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath who were not in the least impaired.
The fact seems to be that those whose ability to drive safely is reduced by the consumption of illicit drugs, cannabis included, are on our roads in significant numbers. Greater numbers, perhaps, than those who are impaired by alcohol. Yet according to Simon Bridges, only 200 people were prosecuted for drug driving in this country in 2017, compared with 16,000 drink driving prosecutions.
A lot more work needs to be done before we get close to voting on the legalisation of cannabis. At the very least we must have an accurate, affordable means of detecting those who drive under the influence of drugs other than alcohol.
We must get beyond the fixation with drink driving (which, according to the Ministry of Transport was not involved in 82 per cent of fatal crashes in 2017). Alcohol actually seems to be a relatively minor player in death on our roads.
If those who frame next year’s referendum wish to consider the wider ramifications of legalisation, as they surely will, they might look to Colorado, research there showing that while legalisation of cannabis led to a decline in hospitalisations for chronic pain, there was a 10 per cent increase in road accidents and a 5 per cent increase in alcohol abuse and overdoses that resulted in injury or death. There was a 2 per cent increase in overall hospital admissions.
Ms Genter, in particular, needs to consider that, along with her stated aim of reducing the road toll to zero. A 10 per cent increase in road crashes here would inevitably increase the road toll, and no level of enforcement will change that.
The immediate priority though is to ensure that the issues of medicinal cannabis and recreational use of cannabis do not become confused, before anyone goes anywhere near a polling booth.
"A lot more work needs to be done before we get close to voting on the legalisation of cannabis. "