In my humble opinion, Palmerston North District Court Judge Barbara Morris got it wrong when she sentenced Billy McKee to 12 months’ home detention for selling cannabis to an undercover Police officer.
The judge decided against a custodial sentence, but should have gone further and displayed the same compassion shown recently in other courts.
Billy is the face of GreenCross, a support group for medicinal cannabis patients. Billy had a leg amputated after being knocked off his motorbike by a drunk driver more than 30 years ago. He is confined to a wheelchair and is in constant pain from nerve damage to the stump. He also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He uses cannabis instead of the pain killers he was prescribed because of their intolerable side effects. He says cannabis is the only drug that helps him control his pain and depression, while still allowing him to function.
Billy is a good friend of the Drug Foundation. We profiled him in Matters of Substance back in 2007. There are many New Zealanders like Billy who actively use cannabis for medical conditions, but unlike most of them, Billy is happy to speak publicly about his situation. It was only after meeting Billy and other medicinal cannabis patients that the Drug Foundation formed a policy position that supports a compassionate regime for medicinal cannabis users.
Science is on our side too. That cannabis has medicinal properties is no longer up for debate. What needs to be resolved is the way by which we deliver cannabis as a medicine. Some countries grow cannabis for medicinal use, some US states allow people to grow their own or source it from dispensaries, and other jurisdictions, such as New Zealand, rely on cannabis-based pharmaceutical products. None of these models have yet proven perfect.
In New Zealand the only legal way to source the medicinal properties of cannabis is with a prescription of Sativex – a cannabinoid medicine delivered through an oral spray. This medicine is not subsidised by Pharmac, making it very expensive and leaving many people reliant on the criminal black market. This is not a great solution.
Until we get a system in place that provides affordable, easy and legal access to medicinal cannabis, we should show compassion to people like Billy, and that means not pursuing and prosecuting them. Even the Law Commission, in its review of our current drug laws, recommended Police adopt a policy of non-prosecution in these cases.
hat said, some Courts have demonstrated compassion. Victoria Davis was discharged without conviction in a Nelson court earlier this year on charges of cultivating 62 plants, and last year Timaru man Peter Davy was given just six months home detention.
Billy’s case shouldn’t have even made it to court.
NB Over 10 years the Drug Foundation has published 500 articles in the Matters of Substance magazine. Half of these stories are available here as webpages, and the rest are in PDF format only (download November 2012 copy 5.5 MB).
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