Family divided over need for cannabis

A Northland family is being torn apart in their bid to give their six-year-old daughter cannabis.

Jessika and Brendan Guest moved from America to Whangarei last year but Jessika and their two children Jade, 6, and Ethan, 8, are heading back to Colorado where they can legally source cannabis oil to treat Jade's epilepsy.

Jessika said she believed medicinal marijuana was the best option for Jade, whose condition has worsened in recent months, leaving her suffering more than 30 seizures a day.

Brendan was planning to stay behind to continue working as a truck driver and it was unlikely the family would be reunited in New Zealand unless medical cannabis was legalised.

"We sold everything to come over here and give our kids a Kiwi lifestyle," Jessika said.

"Our goal is hopefully to come back. Hopefully New Zealand will legalise (cannabis oil) so that Jade and other kids can get the help they dearly need."

The decision to leave at the end of July followed months of difficult discussions, Jessika said.

International evidence suggests young patients using just a couple of drops of the oil each day saw a major improvement controlling their symptoms.

A growing number of parents were risking fines or imprisonment by importing the drug illegally while one mother told the Sunday Star-Times she has grown her own plants to make cannabis oil for her teenage daughter.

Jessika said the decision to separate their family was their best option for giving Jade a better chance at life.

Jade's daily battle with epilepsy involved being "pumped full of (pharmaceutical) drugs" that brought significant side-effects, Jessika said.

"They make her tired, they make her drool, they make her agitated, and they make her constipated. They're ruining her kidneys and her liver and her stomach lining. She's just a zombie when she's on them and she has to be on them all the time."

The cannabis oil, which is legal to use for medical purposes in Colorado and eight other states of America, has a low level of THC - the component that causes the "high" effect.

Jessika said she couldn't understand why it was legal in Colorado and several countries, including Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Czech Republic, Netherlands and Israel, but not in New Zealand.

"It's very difficult knowing that the proof is out there and there is so much evidence of it working in other cases. It breaks my heart that someone could look at a child suffering and not give them a chance to try this drug."

The alternative was to apply for legally-approved cannabis mouth spray, Sativex. At $1000 for three small bottles, she said the price was "outrageous" and put the drug out of reach.

Sativex has had partial approval in New Zealand since 2008 but was not registered through Pharmac and has only had 53 prescriptions approved, including for repeat patients.

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne said another pharmaceutical drug Epidolex - a liquid, non-psychoactive cannabinoid - may be considered for market use in the future, following testing in America. But he rejected calls for the Government to run a clinical trial of other medical cannabis products, saying: "I have seen no new evidence that persuades me to seek a change to the current policy."

The New Zealand Medical Association has supported calls for a medical cannabis trial, which has also gained backing from opposition political groups.

Labour's drug and alcohol treatment spokesman, Ian Lees-Galloway, said legislation on medical cannabis was out of date.

He said there needed to be a "more mature, thoughtful" debate and greater compassion shown toward people giving cannabis to their children.

"I absolutely sympathise with parents, they've probably tried all manner of treatments available to them, they just want to make their children well. It must be immensely frustrating if they think they've found the answer and the answer is illegal."

The Law Commission recommended in 2011 that cannabis be legalised for pain relief and managing symptoms of chronic illness.

That would be the first step Labour would look at responding to if they formed Government, Lees-Galloway said.

The Green Party also backed the Law Commission's recommendations, while the Internet Party said party members were in support of legalising cannabis for medicinal use.

Jessika said while moving overseas was a drastic step; she expected others would consider doing the same, following on from so-called "Colorado refugees" who relocated families from other parts of America to access the drug.

NZ Drug Foundation director Ross Bell said he wasn't aware of any other parents leaving New Zealand to access cannabis oil.

He said if Australian states legalised medical cannabis it was likely more families would migrate there. "If you're a parent who knows there is a drug that could benefit your child - and it's available over the ditch - they'll do anything they can.

"Ultimately we want to access that type of medicine over here."

Sunday Star Times