Real Life

The older New Zealand women crying out for cannabis

These unlikely law-breakers won’t give up their fight.

Pearl Schomburg is hardly your stereotypical criminal. She’s 64, a great-grandmother and has been known to wear if not a twin set and sensible shoes, then pretty close to it.

But Pearl is breaking the law. She’s among a growing number of older New Zealanders turning to medicinal cannabis to alleviate symptoms associated with illness or disease. In Pearl’s case, she uses it to control nausea and relieve the chronic, sometimes crippling pain brought on by RSI and rheumatoid arthritis.

The Aucklander argues the new rules around medical cannabis announced this month – giving the Ministry of Health, rather than the Minister, sign-off for all non-pharmaceutical grade medicinal cannabis applications – will be of little benefit to most patients.

Neither of the products available in New Zealand, Sativex and Tilray, are funded by Pharmac, meaning patients would face a cost of $600 to $1200 a month, Pearl says.

Pearl uses medicinal cannabis extract in oil and balm forms.

“It is only going to be patients who can afford these drugs who will have access to them. The poor, the less privileged, won’t have access. The fact is the Government knows there will be a huge number of patients who can’t afford these drugs, and will continue to suffer and possibly die. It’s cruel and inhumane.

“I didn’t intend to be in the situation I’m in. And it’s the same for a lot of other patients. They were once well, they might have had good jobs, and then disease hits or they have an accident. So all the cushions, if you like, are taken away and they find themselves in a situation not of their own making. Once that happens, you become incredibly vulnerable.”

Her own health battles began in the mid-1980s. A data entry supervisor, she spent a number of years working for a finance firm in Australia before deciding to return home and train as a computer operator.

“I came back to New Zealand thinking I was returning to be part of this ground-breaking era of computer science. But I became sick and was diagnosed with RSI. I thought I would have a rest, get well and get back to work, but that never happened. I was eventually also diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and I haven’t been able to work since.”

She reels off a long list of ailments: “I have coeliac disease, I have peptic ulcers and I have lymphocytic colitis, all of which I believe were caused by the raft of anti-inflammatories I took for the arthritis. I was on morphine and codeine and Panadeine as background pain suppressants, anti-inflammatories, sleeping pills and numerous tablets to counteract the effects of those.”

The great-grandmother says the law in New Zealand is out of step with science.

She continues, “I’ve had both feet re-constructed, implants in both shoulders – that led to a massive bone infection in my right shoulder which is now full of plaster of Paris – and I have very little control of that arm.

“I have two knuckles that’ve been replaced, plates and pins in my hands, and damaged tendons in my wrists. Plus I have two subluxated [out of line] vertebrae in my neck from a fall which is exacerbated by the arthritis. “It’s been a nightmare. Basically, it got to the stage where I couldn’t imagine being any more unwell without the pills, so I stopped taking them.”

Pearl has been using medicinal cannabis extract – in oil and balm form – for just over a year now and black market cannabinoid (CBD) products for the last month. Her health has noticeably improved.

And where she previously relied on her cocktail of drugs to treat her illnesses – countering numerous side effects with even more prescription drugs – she now relies on the kindness of strangers. In this case, it’s people known as “green fairies”, to keep her supplied. She has rarely had to pay, something she says she is immensely grateful for.

She is quick to stress that the CBD in cannabis is not felt as a “high” as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is. And while it is still classified as a Class B controlled drug, scientists at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research have recommended it be reclassified as a standard prescription-only medicine.

Pearl – who carries letters from both her GP and specialist supporting her use of cannabis for pain relief – knows she is breaking the law, but she is adamant that in this case, the law really is an ass. She has signed petitions, written to the Police Commissioner, made submissions and is involved with a High Court challenge to get the Government to clarify the legal status of CBD.

“The financial cost and stress associated with accessing this medication is huge. All I want, and I’m speaking for many others who can’t speak up as well, is to be able to legally grow enough cannabis for my own personal use.

“At the moment, a police officer could come into my house and decide whether I’m sick enough to warrant using that medicine. It’s just wrong. The law is out of step with science and it’s out of step with people’s wishes.”

Controlling the ails of ageing

Beverley Aldridge sighs. She knows there are those who see her and her fellow Otamatea Grey Power members as a bunch of old hippies just wanting to get stoned legally. But it couldn’t be further from the truth, the 75-year-old and chapter president says.

“None of us smoke cannabis and none of us want to,” the Northland grandmother and colitis sufferer stresses.

The group were rapped over the knuckles by the Grey Power bosses last year after unanimously supporting a petition calling for Parliament to re-legalise cannabis, but Beverley says they aren’t backing down.

“We are all passionate about being able to grow a few cannabis plants in our gardens, like broccoli or what have you, so we can alleviate the symptoms of ailments that we are now being subjected to as a result of ageing,” she tells.

“We believe we have a right to quality of life in our senior years and we believe that cannabis has a role in our quality of life.”

Beverley is due to give a submission on the petition to the Justice and Electoral Committee at Parliament next month.

Words: Julie Jacobsen

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