Cannabis referendum: Medical Association failed to its consult members - doctor

7:28 pm on 2 October 2020

A doctor says the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA) did not consult its members before saying it opposes legalisation of cannabis in this month's referendum.

closeup of dried marijuana and handmade cigarette in ashtray

Photo: 123RF

It comes after RNZ spoke to doctors who are unhappy about the position the NZ Medical Association has taken, with one saying she has cancelled her membership due to the stance.

Wellington GP Dr Luke Wilson rejects the NZMA's claim that a robust process had informed its position.

"It doesn't seem that there's been any consultation between them and us. Basically the current position statement seems to be from 2012.

"At least this year there certainly hasn't been any communication from them asking members for their position on this."

When he queried the move, the association emailed him a document from 2012, which is very similar to a statement from that same year from its sister organisation in Australia - one which has since been updated.

He said he will vote yes and that many of his colleagues felt the same.

He will retain his membership, but worries that members are being misrepresented.

The NZMA had no-one available for interview but stood by its position against legalisation, saying in a statement that "the physical, psychological, and social harms of cannabis are real and relevant".

"On specific health matters, doctors will have common views and approaches to medicine as well as contradictory views and approaches," it stated.

Meanwhile, more high ranking members of the health workforce have aired opposing views on recreational cannabis but medical organisations are shying away from taking a stance.

Professor Doug Sellman from the National Addictions Centre said he has used cannabis himself about 20 times, but still "wrestled" with whether it should be made legal before landing on yes.

The addiction specialist understands why members of the New Zealand Medical Association are unhappy with its stance.

"I think the human rights issue can really stir people to the point where they would want to leave an organisation that is still wanting to criminalise people for using a relatively safe drug.

"Maybe it would have been better for the NZMA to be more equipoised, because it came out quite early against the legislation."

In a recent editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal, which is released by the NZMA, Sellman argues alcohol is more harmful than cannabis in nearly every drug health issue, except for psychosis.

The National Addictions Centre helped to draft the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.

Its director, Associate Professor Simon Adamson, said the referendum is about reform, not preferences.

"People shouldn't be voting yes if they like and smoke it, or no if they don't like it and don't smoke it.

"It's a question of: what is the best way to minimise harm in New Zealand? Is a substantial change in the way that we treat cannabis legally likely to end up with a net reduction in harm?"

Adamson said the Addictions Centre as a whole supports a yes vote, though another organisation he is linked to, the College of Clinical Psychologists, will not take a stance.

Neither will the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the Resident Doctors' Association or the organisation dapaanz, which represents more than 1500 addictions practitioners.

The executive director of dapaanz, Sue Paton, said about half its members have said they would vote yes in the cannabis referendum, a quarter would vote no, and a quarter were undecided.

"That's a good reason for us to not alienate our members. We're a membership association so we represent the addiction workforce, so we can't actually represent them and say vote yes or vote no. That's not representative.

"What is representative is us saying that we do need to move more and more into a health approach."

The New Zealand Nurses' Organisation has long supported treatment of cannabis as a health issue, but will not declare a position.

Its Māori policy analyst, Leanne Manson, said while some members feel legalisation would have negative impacts, her vote is clear.

"I believe that race is an influencer in the cannabis referendum and I will be voting yes, because I believe that Māori are more affected by this. They need support."

New Zealanders can vote from tomorrow.

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