NZ Medical Association's U-turn on cannabis causes backlash from doctors

There has been a strong reaction to the New Zealand Medical Association's U-turn on the cannabis referendum, with one doctor saying he's quitting after 40 years' membership.

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The group now says it has no position on the proposed legalisation, after previously opposing it. Source: 1 NEWS

Last year the NZMA, the body which represents around 5000 doctors, came out strongly against cannabis law reform, saying "cannabis is a harmful drug that causes a range of health and social harms at the individual and community level".

"NZMA does not condone the use of cannabis for recreational purpose and opposes legalisation," it said at the time.

Doctors say they were never consulted about that stance. 

Late last week, in a letter to members, the association backtracked.

The letter from NZMA chair Dr Kate Baddock said it had been falling back on its cannabis position statement which was created in 2012.

"Every member, however, has the absolute right to vote on the Cannabis Legalisation and Control referendum. The NZMA will have no position regarding the referendum itself," she wrote.

"We are truly sorry if anybody feels that the NZMA has not given them the chance to speak their mind."

But that's come too late for some. 

Auckland general practitioner Dr Graham Gulbransen, who specialises in medical marijuana treatment, says he's quitting the association.

"I joined 40 years ago, and I've been increasingly disappointed, and I'll be resigning from the NZMA," he told 1 NEWS.

"I think they've given misinformation to us as members and to the public.

"I would say scientists and specialists in this area have not been consulted when it comes to making an evidence-based policy."

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Former Prime Minister Helen Clark is backing cannabis law reform. She says NZMA's handling of the issue is "scandalous" and could potentially have misled voters.

"They've been giving the impression for months and months and months that they were totally opposed to a yes vote, and suddenly after a very large number of New Zealanders have voted, they say, 'Oh, we didn't mean that,'" she says.

"Really the NZMA should be taking out full-page ads saying, 'We are not advocating one way or not in the referendum,' because they have done damage in advocating for a no vote."

Baddock wasn't available for an interview today, but in a statement the NZMA said its position has not changed.

"This letter was written for NZMA members and is now in the public domain – it was primarily intended to clarify matters for members after concerns were raised regarding consultation with our membership," it said.

"Our position has not changed in that we continue to be concerned about the harms of cannabis use, but we are not telling people how to vote."

In last week's letter to members, Baddock also took aim at the media, saying the association's position statement, which covered the harms of cannabis and favoured decriminalization, had not been properly covered.

"It…recognised that issues to do with cannabis use need to be decriminalised and diverted from the courts and dealt with as health issues," Baddock said.

"Again, the media chose not to report that despite my repeatedly making the point."

Baddock appeared on TVNZ's Q+A programme last month as part of a half-hour debate on the cannabis referendum.

At the time, she said: "Legalising a drug which causes harm is not going to help. 

"For those that have issues with being either dependent on cannabis or suffering from harms related to cannabis use, put them into the health system, let them get the treatment and the management they need and keep them out of jail," Baddock said.

"You don't need to legalise recreational cannabis to do that."

Gulbransen says the NZMA is putting too much emphasis on recreational cannabis, and that many people who currently smoke cannabis do it for medical reasons.

"The NZMA is still saying this referendum is about, 'Do you support recreational cannabis or not?' This is a referendum that asks, 'Do you support the legalisation and control of cannabis?'" he says.

"Actually, half of cannabis users use it medicinally for chronic pain and other symptoms not responding to standard medical treatment. Just half are recreational users."

He says most people can't afford prescription cannabis from doctors.

"It would be safer for them to buy their medicinal cannabis from shops where it has been standardised and labelled so people know what is in their herbal medicine and do not risk arrest."