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On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd interviews National Party Health Spokesperson Michael Woodhouse

Simon Shepherd: The National Party proposed its own medicinal cannabis scheme last year. Its Health Spokesperson, Michael Woodhouse, says it shouldn’t have been ignored. So I began by asking him what his problem is with the government’s proposed regime.

Michael Woodhouse: Well, I think this is a terrible process. The government introduced a bill in December 2017 that said it was going to have a regulatory framework for a medicinal cannabis scheme – no details whatsoever. They passed the bill, rejecting the very good suggestions that Dr Shane Reti made in select committee. And then months later, they come up with a discussion document and give stakeholders four weeks to respond; that’s the very definition of bad policy.

Well, you could have worked more constructively with them when it all happened last year, though, couldn’t you?

We tried. We’ve worked very hard in the select committee, of which I was a member, to say, ‘Look, this is the only time Parliament gets to scrutinise this bill. Let’s have a bit more flesh on the bones.’ They didn’t want to do that.

All right, so we’ve got the flesh on the bones now. What are your concerns about it? Or is it just okay?

Well, there are some aspects of the discussion document that we agree with and actually reflects a lot of what Dr Reti had done last year. But we think there are some omissions – and some quite concerning ones.

Like what?

Well, there’s no guidelines around proximity of cultivation to, for example, residential areas or schools. There is the opportunity, actually, to grow cannabis outside, which means security is going to be quite significant, but the discussion document doesn’t say very much about that.

Why do you have concerns about proximity of growing a crop around a school? Near a school?

Well, this is, until now, and still in the future in the illicit sense, an unlawful product that is grown— that has a psychoactive property. I don’t think parents and teachers would want to have 200 square metres or more of cannabis growing within—

But this is going to be a licenced, regulated industry producing a medicine. It’s totally different to a gang-grown crop, isn’t it?

Well, for example, morphine is a medicine too. But heroin, the poppy product that is grown wild, is actually very dangerous if it’s not well-controlled. The same will be the case for marijuana leaf.

Now, marijuana leaf is not dangerous as a plant if it’s just growing in the ground.

Well, I think there are some dangers in respect of the likelihood that there could be people wanting to go and raid the crop.

So you’re talking about criminal activity?

Potentially. I mean, it’s currently a criminal activity to grow it now. The proximity to those sorts of places I think should have been in the discussion document; it’s not. So it may well be consulted on over the next month.

But that’s just a transitional phase, isn’t it, until you actually have an industry going, and then the safety concerns will be addressed.

Well, there’ll always be a cultivation process. I think the right time to talk about safety and security is right now. Obviously, there’s an oblique reference in the discussion document to making sure the properties are secure, but it doesn’t rule out growing them in the open air. And I do worry about the fact that it could be growing close to residential areas.

You’re also concerned about the way that this is going to be administered, i.e. vaping?

Yeah. So, look, currently, the only medicines that are inhaled are ones either for respiratory conditions or that are overseen by a medical practitioner – say, an anaesthetist, for example. This has dangers with both the safety of it but also dose control.

But it’s not smoking, though; it’s vaping, and that’s a controlled dosage, isn’t it?

Well, not necessarily, because there’s no controls over the number of times that the product is vaped, and that goes to the question— Remember, this is still a psychoactive substance. It’s going to give people a high unless that particular constituent is taken out of the product. It’s hard to see how that can happen in vaping. The irony of all of this, of course, is that the government’s not prepared to include vaping of nicotine in its Smokefree Environment legislation, but it seems to allow it for marijuana.

It’s putting it up for discussion, anyway, the possibility of vaping.

Well, we wouldn’t support vaping in the framework.

Right, okay. Your government invested in the clean, green image of New Zealand. Surely this is a way of promoting that and getting a big industry going for New Zealand. It’s lucrative.

Absolutely. And in that sense, we’re not opposed to a medicinal cannabis regime. But remember that this should be a pharmaceutical product. It should be manufactured to pharmaceutical standards and have the same sort of controls, including medical practitioner oversight, as those other medicines. So as long as those controls are in place, we don’t object to the framework. We certainly object to the process, and we have some concerns about some aspects of it.

Okay. So, you’re talking about the quality to which it’s manufactured. One of the proposals is to manufacture some of these products to a slightly lesser standard, but that’s to try and get the industry up and running. Isn’t that a good thing?

Yeah, well, firstly, this is a pharmaceutical product – that’s how it’s being promoted – and therefore, it should apply the pharmaceutical standards. For us, that’s GMP – Good Manufacturing Practice. But the other aspect to this – and the Minister has spoken about this – is that he foresees an export market for high-quality medicinal cannabis. That being the case, we should be manufacturing to the standard those countries expect, and that for us is GMP.

One of the problems of having the high level of standards is that the drugs are going to be expensive – initially anyway – and that means that people who are poor won’t be able to afford them, so they’re still going to have to buy them on the black market, aren’t they, if they want them.

Well, there’s still the risk that those who can’t afford the medicines if they’re not subsidised will continue to go to the black market now. But of course, we’ve got, currently, a bill before the House that instructs police not to prosecute for possession. We’ve got a potential referendum next year. So it may well be that we put in place this medicinal cannabis framework and people won’t use it.

Does National support the prosecution of people who use medicinal cannabis on the black market if they can’t take a legal drug?

So, firstly, there’s a terminal exemption that was part of the legislation that was passed here, and we certainly didn’t worry too much about that, because that was pretty much what police were doing. But I don’t think it’s appropriate to have a blanket ‘police should not prosecute’ clause in the legislation, and that’s what’s currently being proposed. We don’t support that.

Okay, just quickly, a couple of things – would you subsidise medicinal cannabis?

Well, that’d be a matter for Pharmac, and the interesting thing about these medicines is that we’re worried about them being safe and in the right hands. Pharmac will be interested about whether they are actually effective in doing the sorts of things that people say they are – that’s pain relief, moderating neurological symptoms and so on – and that they have to be better and more cost-effective than the other medicines on the market.

So that’s for Pharmac. Is there anything that you would change?

Certainly, we would strengthen the licensing regime around the ‘fit and proper person’ test. We certainly wouldn’t rule out anybody with no drug convictions as a worker inside these cultivation or manufacturing processes, but we think the proposal is too loose as it is now, and it needs to be tightened up.

Thank you very much for your time.

Thanks, Simon.

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