It is quite incredible what can be achieved by modern medicine. Many cancers can be cured, we can see inside the body in amazing detail with a variety of hi-tech machines and people are living longer and healthier than ever before. But the biggest story in medicine at the moment is whether people should be legally able to use a plant that has been used medically for at least 5,000 years.
In New Zealand cannabis has become legal for medical use, with legislation passed in December last year and regulations on how this will work due to be finalised in December of this year.
The key questions are: does it work and is it safe? The answers are “definitely” and “mostly”. There has been a lot of research into the medical effects of cannabis, but nowhere near enough to fully understand just how effective it is or how to use it optimally. A big reason for the lack of certainty is that there are over 500 compounds in cannabis, and yet most of the clinical studies have looked at pharmaceutical products which have extracted only one or two of these compounds. In general, natural products are effective due to the many ingredients that they contain working together synergistically. If a natural product such as cannabis is substantially altered, a high proportion or even all of the effectiveness may be lost.
Despite this there is solid evidence that cannabis can help with nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy, chronic pain, spasticity from multiple sclerosis, sleep problems and anxiety issues. Further research is likely to find many other proven health benefits.
On the flipside, although no-one has ever died from a cannabis overdose (unlike opiate medicines which kill tens of thousands of people every year), using large amounts of cannabis at a young age can cause severe mental health issues, smoking lots of cannabis may cause lung cancer and using cannabis and then driving can lead to fatal crashes.
The main medical and legal bodies are in favour of the medical use of cannabis. The New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA) supports medical cannabis as long as the products are of high quality and clinical studies have been undertaken to show that they are safe and effective. The New Zealand Law Commission has recommended cannabis be made available for medical use.
The New Zealand public are certainly in favour - a recent poll of 1,750 New Zealanders found that 71% of those surveyed supported medicinal cannabis legalization and other surveys put this figure at over 90%.