Changing the Stigma of Medicinal Cannabis

At the Cannabis Clinic, we know cannabis may have some powerful medicinal benefits and we’ve helped thousands of Kiwis on their health journey with medicinal cannabis prescriptions for both CBD oil and THC. But the stigma of cannabis holds on tightly. Cannabis users are still met with negative stereotypes and judgement every day.

So what can we do to make a difference to public opinion about this plant? We have a long journey in front of us, but we’re up for the challenge! Let’s do a deep dive into the stigma of medicinal cannabis and what we can do to change it.

The stigma surrounding cannabis has been damaging to an unmeasurable number of Kiwis throughout the plant’s long history in NZ. Since around the time of the Dangerous Drugs Act in 1927, cannabis use has been met with legal punishment and social condemnation. The cannabis referendum in 2020 saw 48.4% of voters support the cannabis law reform. However, change was denied by 50.7% who dominated the result. While the Labour Party has decided not to move on cannabis reform, they have reclassed cannabis possession as a health issue, rather than a criminal issue. And we can only hope this will lead to the decriminalisation of cannabis use and reduce the stigma around medicinal cannabis as well.

According to the NZ Herald, drug prosecutions for cannabis use are on the decline with police saying that prior offending is now the main factor in their decision to charge Kiwis with drug possession. There’s still a long way to go with drug laws and policing, and we won’t give up – but it’s a start.

First things first, what is stigma?

The term stigma is a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something. Stigma is seen as a mark of shame or discredit towards something that may not be fully justified.

For people who use cannabis, stigma may mean that they’re met with negative stereotypes such as being abnormal or immoral, or being rejected by family and friends due to their use of cannabis. Unfortunately, the stigma doesn’t end with people who obtain cannabis through the black market, but also sometimes extends to medicinal cannabis users.

It’s often the case that people who partake in black market cannabis use aren’t taking it for recreational purposes, but have found relief from medical conditions with the help of cannabis through their own means, and are taking it to self-medicate. From mental health struggles and pain to sleep, our CEO, Dr Waseem, has seen this first hand.

What many people don’t realise is that around 40 – 50% of those using cannabis are doing so because it alleviates a certain symptom that they feel and therefore are using it as medicine. These people don’t want to get high at all, they just want to be able to function normally, work and look after their family.

Medicinal cannabis users face stigma too. One study found that medicinal cannabis users were often linked to the negative stereotypes of those who use the recreational drug. They were often seen as irresponsible and unreliable by a wide range of people including employers and colleagues, law enforcement, and even healthcare professionals.

The struggle against the norms of pharmaceutical western medicine

We know that many of our patients have run into stigma directed at them by doctors when they’ve sought out medicinal cannabis treatment. Unfortunately, this is the reality of nearly a century of prohibition and the lack of education about alternative, natural medicines in medical training. The chief scientific officer at the Australian Natural Therapeutics Group, Justin Sinclaire, said in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, that during a lecture to 100 doctors and nurses in 2019, he asked who had learnt about the therapeutic properties of cannabis or the endocannabinoid system during their undergraduate training. He found that not a single person put their hand up, and that they’d only been taught about the harms associated with cannabis overuse.

Dr Waseem also found a big gap in his own experience with medical training in New Zealand. He doesn’t recall any mention of the endocannabinoid system or alternative medicines to typical pharmaceutical drugs while he was training. His own interest in cannabis comes from the lack of reward from using conventional medicines to help patients. That all changed when he learned about the power of plant-based medicines.

Cannabis works throughout the body on a system called the endocannabinoid system. There are many systems in the body that together interact to create homeostasis, or a state of equilibrium in the body. As a doctor, we try to understand how disease and illness disturb this balance, what systems are involved and therefore how to try and treat it using medicines. The endocannabinoid system was discovered in the mid 90s but it was never mentioned during my medical training. Our brain and most major body organs have endocannabinoid receptors, which is why medicinal cannabis may have such a significant positive effect on our health.

I think part of the reason why such an important internal regulatory system is not covered in medical training is due to the stigma we place on cannabis. My own parents don’t even see me as practising “real medicine”. We have all learnt that cannabis is a substance of abuse which will make us high. However, this statement could also be equally applied to opioid medicines which are prescribed by doctors and are taken by many people for years.

Hear more about Dr Waseem’s journey to starting the Cannabis Clinic in this video.

Even though medicinal cannabis use is legal in NZ under the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme, many Kiwis are put off reaching out to their doctors for legal access to the medicine due to the stigma around it. According to research, many individuals seeking medicinal cannabis reported being reluctant to ask their doctors for a prescription out of fear of being judged. A January 2020 study in New Zealand found that half of the GPs that were surveyed had been asked about medicinal cannabis in the last year, but two-thirds of those had declined to prescribe it.

This is a very frustrating result for patients who are at the end of their tether with traditional pharmaceutical drugs, which often have intolerable side effects, who wish to explore a natural, plant-based alternative to treat their medical conditions. This is why it’s so important to break down the stigma around cannabis – especially medicinal cannabis – as a harmful drug. Marijuana is perfectly safe to use in controlled amounts and may have powerful benefits when used in a medical setting.

To help our patients navigate the world while taking medicinal cannabis, we offer Cannabis Clinic Medicinal Cannabis Cards, providing you with identification and shows that you’re a patient under the Cannabis Clinic. For $25, which includes administration and one year’s validity, you can have a bit of extra confidence in being able to prove the legality of your cannabis use. You can apply for a Medicinal Cannabis Card here.

So how can we reduce the stigma surrounding cannabis?

It’s not an easy fix and it’s going to take time, compassion, and understanding. The first step to working to undo any stigma is to identify where you have stigmatised beliefs yourself and challenge those ideas. When negative thoughts about cannabis users come up, stop and ask yourself why? Only after you’ve done the work can you help others unravel their assumptions about cannabis.

My work through the Cannabis Clinic is to firstly work with our doctors to ensure as a team, we understand cannabis. Even that’s quite hard work because we all bring along our own understanding of what cannabis is and who uses it. From there, it’s ensuring that our work with our patients is based on understanding and compassion without judgement. Ensuring that we are listening to our patients and prescribing them what will be appropriate for them, without judgement. We break down the barriers by making our service as easy to access as possible and professional. A lot of our patients come to us wanting complete privacy over their use of cannabis based medicines, and that could be from their GP or family members. We work with them through those requests but also continue to educate them through the process and normalise it. The outcome we seek is that they see the benefit and then themselves become advocates of cannabis with us. 

Let’s do the work together with the support of the wonderful Cannabis Clinic community. Follow us on our Facebook or Instagram pages to join in the discussion and keep up-to-date on all things medicinal cannabis in Aotearoa.

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Disclaimer – medicinal cannabis and CBD oil are unapproved medicines in NZ which means that there is no conclusive evidence for their effect, apart from Sativex. Many doctors do not routinely prescribe cannabis medicines. The above article was written for general educational purposes and does not intend to suggest that medicinal cannabis can be used to treat any health condition. Please consult with your healthcare provider. 

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