Taranaki woman sparks debate on medical marijuana

IN PAIN: Paula Gray says she is forced to buy marijuana on the black market because it is the thing that helps her ...
ROBERT CHARLES/FAIRFAX NZ

IN PAIN: Paula Gray says she is forced to buy marijuana on the black market because it is the thing that helps her fibromyalgia.

Paula Gray is a criminal.

She is also a mother, a grandmother, a Christian, a farmer and, perhaps, a victim.

Because the Taranaki woman says she must break the law every day in order to to treat her fibromyalgia, a painful and debilitating condition that causes her severe muscle and joint pain, stiffness and fatigue.

"Taking marijuana keeps my pain at bay and my joints moving freely," she says. "I've never found anything else that works. I've tried so many other things through the years."

Trouble is, quite apart from marijuana being illegal, Gray is having trouble finding the one substance she believes makes her life bearable.

So last week she took her search online. In part to find cannabis but also to express her frustration and start debate on the laws that make her a criminal, she posted an advertisement on Buy and Sell New Plymouth's Facebook page.

"I would like to buy some pot," she wrote.

The response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive, she says. Within hours she had 10 users contact her directly to congratulate her on her "bravery" before her post was deleted.

"I did it because I am sick of being offered P. I am sick of being offered E, or not-pot or a trip. All those things will ruin your life. I just want marijuana with a high cannabinoid content. I need it to treat my fibromyalgia.

"I don't think anyone should have to smoke marijuana and be forced to buy it from dealers. It should be made available to us in medicinal form.

"I'm not saying it's a miracle drug," she says. "It doesn't work for everyone, just like any medication, but it needs to be made an option."

Whether you believe Gray is genuine or not, increasingly, in other parts of the world pot, marijuana, cannabis, whatever you want to call it, is an accepted option for the treatment of everything from back pain to nausea to headaches. It is touted by users as being effective in treating seizures, easing nerve pain, glaucoma and some say it's the only thing that reduces their anxiety.

This week dozens of people askedf about their use of marijuana to treat themselves for a variety of ailments. For all except one, they talked only on condition of anonymity, for fear of the repercussions such an admission would have with their family, friends and or their employment.

Because despite 10 states in the US, Canada, Israel, and the Netherlands instituting specific regimes for medicinal cannabis use, and despite neighbouring Australia moving towards allowing its use there, in New Zealand there is no such momentum.

Cannabis, regardless of why you use it, is illegal and it looks likely to stay that way with new Justice Minister Amy Adams saying she is not currently considering any moves to allow the medicinal use of marijuana here.

She said: "I have seen no evidence that supports the benefits for decriminalising or legalising cannabis, for medicinal purposes or otherwise, outweighing the harm it causes to society.

"The potential harms from smoking cannabis are well documented and I have no plans to soften the Government's stance on what is commonly considered a gateway drug to more harmful substances such as P."

Neither are the police planning any change in how they treat cannabis users and dealers. Though in what may be a reflection of the tricky nature of the issue of medical marijuana, New Plymouth police kicked questions up the food chain to national HQ.

"There's nothing in the law which allows for medicinal use of marijuana in New Zealand. The exception is one pharmaceutical drug (Sativex) which is only available by prescription under strictly monitored conditions," a police spokesperson said.

"Anyone attempting to procure cannabis for this purpose is potentially committing an offence. Any actions which police would take would be dependent on the evidence and circumstances of any particular matter."

Ross Bell, of the drug law reform advocacy group the New Zealand Drug Foundation, says fear is stopping the country from embracing the potential benefits of medicinal marijuana.

"There is a simple fear that somehow allowing a medicinal cannabis regime is a sneaky back door to changing cannabis laws that will end up with cannabis being sold in dairies.

"That's a fear that doesn't need to be realised. There are models New Zealand could borrow from to avoid this other issue of "are we going to legalise cannabis".

"Netherlands, Canada, Israel and some states in the US have instituted specific regimes for the medical use cannabis which don't change the legal status of cannabis for recreational use. In some cases cannabis is grown under a government approved license and dispensed with a doctor's prescription. In other cases patients are allowed to grow their own cannabis."

And, as many users of medicinal cannabis like to point out, those countries haven't imploded. In fact New Zealand, for a while, looked like it was going to join them.

In 2010 the former Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer oversaw a Law Commission report that stated there was "no reason why cannabis should not be able to be used for medicinal purposes in limited circumstances".

Before it was rapidly amended in an embarrassing about face last year, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013, that would have regulated the supply of synthetic cannabis, was seen by many as the necessary precursor to a regulated natural cannabis market.

But while the official law is against marijuana, Bell believes police can be "compassionate" in its application, often choosing against prosecuting people using cannabis for medical reasons.

Any changes to the laws that formalise such suspected leniency will have to be informed by the growing understanding around cannabis and its medicinal uses, he says. Such change is likely to take five years at least.

Abe Gray, of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, believes what stops marijuana law reform is that it's a direct challenge to existing power structures.

Drug companies are reluctant, on financial grounds, to have laws that allow people to grow "medicine" in their back yards and police would be hesitant to water down laws that give them the power to search and prosecute hundreds of thousands of Kiwis, he says.

"All of these barriers exist to change. Even if it seems obvious it should be done for the good of human rights," he says.

The numbers of New Zealanders who smoke marijuana and so could conceivably support law change are massive. A 2012 United Nations survey found New Zealanders are one of the world's heaviest users of cannabis, anywhere from 9 per cent to 14.6 per cent of the population having used it in the last year. A 2007/08 Ministry of Health Survey found nearly half of Kiwis aged 16-64 had used marijuana in their lifetime.

Like Bell, Gray believes public pressure for change will become more vocal as other countries, particularly Australia, adopt laws allowing marijuana for medical reasons.

"If we stay under National, or there is never a grass roots campaign to show New Zealand does support it, I think they will only legalise it because it's so mainstream in the US and Australia they have do to it because so many people are going overseas to be treated "legally"," he says.

"Anyone can look online, see what is happening in other counties and then look out their front door and ask, well, why am I suffering. Why am I a criminal here and not there."

 - Taranaki Daily News

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