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New Zealand’s Push to Legalize Medical Marijuana Picks Up Momentum

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New Zealand’s Push to Legalize Medical Marijuana Picks Up Momentum

The government of New Zealand has announced that it plans to hold a referendum on cannabis legalization, possibly as early as next year, and a medical marijuana bill is already pending in the country’s parliament. It has taken generations of activist effort by Kiwis to bring the country to this point. Cannabis Now spoke with some of the leaders who made it happen about the future of cannabis in New Zealand.

After last September’s general election in New Zealand, the center-left Labour Party struck a deal with the left-wing Green Party in order to forge a parliamentary majority:  The question of cannabis legalization had to be placed before New Zealand’s voters. Now, the government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that it may make good on this promise to the Greens in the coming year.

While the prospect for cannabis legalization looks promising in New Zealand, the government is now debating whether to hold the referendum in 2019 or 2020. Officials are worried that holding the referendum in the 2020 general election could be a bad move politically, because of the stigma that still surrounds the issue. Justice Minister Andrew Little even admitted this was a consideration in recent comments to Radio New Zealand.

Unfortunately, the government has not yet decided if the referendum to legalize cannabis in New Zealand will be non-binding, meaning that the government won’t commit to following the will of the voters. So cannabis advocates still have plenty of work ahead of them.

Hearteningly, the balance of power is more favorable than it’s been for many years. The Greens hold eight of 120 seats in New Zealand’s Parliament, and make up one pillar of the ruling coalition with Labour and the populist party New Zealand First.

Green MP Speaks on The Country’s Path to Legalization

Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick credited her party with providing the impetus for the referendum plan. Swarbrick herself has introduced a medical cannabis legalization bill before New Zealand’s legislature.

“It’s something the Greens have campaigned on for decades, alongside the rest of our evidence-based policies, because the war on drugs is worse than an abject failure – it’s multiplied harm,” Swarbrick told Cannabis Now in an email.

Last October, New Zealand made a small step toward legalizing medical cannabis last year, when the Health Ministry allowed medical practitioners to prescribe CBD products — despite the government’s position that cannabidiol is a controlled substance under the 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act (MoDA). Canadian-produced CBD oil has been approved for import. The price, however, is prohibitive and many patients are awaiting passage of the medical marijuana bill.

According to Swarbrick, a limited medical cannabis bill “has passed its first reading and is currently before the Health Select Committee.” She believes that the bill is on track to be passed into law by the end of 2018, if not early 2019. However, she says her political party is hoping “that the legislation is expanded to be more progressive and comprehensive.”

Swarbrick is not optimistic about addressing the two most serious limitations of the bill. First, it contains no provisions for use of herbaceous cannabis or for home cultivation. Secondly, it does not actually establish the terms for a medical marijuana program, but mandates the Health Ministry to do so. With the Swarbrick’s broader version of the bill voted down in January, the Select Committee is reviewing the more limited version.

“It’s not within the Committee’s powers to completely re-write a bill, so it’s unfortunately very unlikely that those delegated powers to the Ministry will be replaced,” Swarbrick says.

“We will, however, continue the hard work alongside community organizations to ensure the bill is in the best shape, and as transparent in its intentions as possible,” she says.

But the battle isn’t over. Swarbrick does hold out hope for herbaceous use and home cultivation “potentially being explored and implemented by the Ministry of Health by way of its delegated powers.”

Activists Test the Limits of the Law

Medical marijuana campaigner Rose Renton, who lives in the South Island city of Nelson, is among those who helped press the issue of legal cannabis in New Zealand — and may yet pay for it with her freedom. She faces up to 14 years in prison for supplying chronic pain sufferers and hospice patients with CBD products she produced herself. Cultivation is among the charges she faces, as New Zealand news site Stuff reported when she first appeared in court in October.

Locally known as the “Green Fairy,” Renton presented a petition with nearly 18,000 signatures to Parliament last year demanding legal, safe and affordable access to medicinal cannabis. And the issue is personal for Renton. Her son, Alex Renton, was the first New Zealander to be treated with CBD oil. He died in July 2015 after being hospitalized in a “status epilepticus” — a kind of prolonged seizure.

Renton told Cannabis Now that a medical necessity defense is among the options she is considering. “Medical necessity has been spoken about,” she said. “We are keeping our options open regarding defense still… I have patient affidavits, and an experienced pain specialist here in Nelson and a [general practitioner], who will happily support our defense. They all refer patients directly to me.” Her next court date is in August, and trial looks likely in the spring.

Renton is being represented by activist attorney Sue Grey, who told Stuff in January that she hopes the case will result in a formal recognition that CBD is not covered by the country’s prohibition law, MoDA.

Speaking to Cannabis Now, Grey described the problems with the status quo: “The limited available imported CBD products tend to be expensive, and few subsidies are available. Although we have had licensed hemp growers for many years, they have not been allowed to use their crop for medicinal purposes. The NZ government is currently in a catch-up mode. Meanwhile our sick and dying are waiting hopefully.”

Another Kiwi freedom fighter is California-born Rebecca “Redwood” Reider, who lives just north of Nelson in the city of Golden Bay. She figured out a loophole in New Zealand’s law that allowed her to bring cannabis into the country.

As she related to Cannabis Now, “My lawyer [Sue Grey] found a loophole in the MoDA, allowing possession of a one-month supply of a controlled drug purchased abroad legally for medical purposes.”

Although this loophole was added to the law with pharmaceuticals rather than cannabis in mind, Reider flew to Hawaii in August 2016, where she purchased state-legal medicinal cannabis for the chronic pain she suffers from. Then she flew home, and declared the cannabis to the customs agents at the Auckland airport. “It was pretty surreal actually,” she recalls, “with the media and cameras waiting at the airport.” She had alerted the press beforehand so they would be there to document it in case there was trouble. There wasn’t. She was allowed in with her cannabis.

“My case added fuel to the fire,” she says. “People were fascinated by this exception allowing them to bring in cannabis legally.”

In response to the media coverage, however, the Health Ministry changed its interpretation of the law, arguing it is only U.S. federal law that should be recognized — not the state medical marijuana laws.

Earlier in 2016, Reider had also faced charges for importing cannabis-infused chocolate bars into New Zealand. That case resulted in “discharge without conviction” — basically meaning that the charge is dropped, despite a formal finding of guilt. This was another win for Reider.

Reider notes that when the formerly ruling right-wing National Party was chucked out of power in last year’s election, Labour and its coalition partners pledged that a medical marijuana law would be passed within their first 100 days. And indeed, the bill was submitted by the new government shortly after it took office. But this rush may help account for its shortcomings. One provision included to appease advocates would immediately (even before the Health Ministry program is up and running) remove penalties for medicinal cannabis use by terminal patients.

Reider finds this provision to be “ridiculous.”

“People deserve compassion throughout their lives, not just the last 12 months,” she told Cannabis Now. “And how do you know they’re gonna die? Cannabis can extend life, so this opens a real paradox.”

Reider, who works as a journalist and coordinator of Organic Winegrowers NZ, also expresses hope that parliament will respond to pressure to fix the law before it passes, noting that an impressive 2,000 written comments were submitted by the public to the committee reviewing the legislation.


New Zealand’s Decades of Cannabis Activism

In 2001, a Green Party parliamentarian named Nandor Tanczos, who was a dreadlocked white Rastafarian, first pushed the cannabis decriminalization cause forward.

At his urging, parliament’s Health Select Committee opened a “Cannabis Inquiry” that did indeed bring back recommendations for decriminalizing the plant. But in horse-trading after the 2002 election, the Greens were bumped from the Labour-led coalition, and cannabis decriminalization did not come to pass.

Despite the failure, Tanczos still inspired a generation of cannabis activists, including Abe Gray, a U.S.-born man who is now the curator of the Whakamana Cannabis Museum in the South Island city of Dunedin. When Gray first moved to New Zealand,  he taught botany as a teaching assistant at Dunedin’s University of Otago and became a “cannabis protester.” He says he was surprised to find his campus activist group “targeted by undercover police operations, when I thought I was coming to a Rasta utopia.”

With Gray’s efforts at his Whakamana Cannabis Museum, he’s hoping to work against the New Zealand government’s long history of anti-cannabis rhetoric.

The name whakamana (the “wh” is pronounced like an f) is actually a Maori word, “linked to indigenous protest movements,” Gray says. Mana means “chiefliness,” or status, respect. Whaka means restoring. So the compound term means restoring the mana of the Maori people.

“And we’re restoring the mana of the cannabis plant by refuting the propaganda of prohibition,” Gray explains.

With the Green Party back in government, the long activist efforts in Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand) may be about to pay off.

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