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New Zealand: Medicinal Cannabis Bill Passed

(Dec. 18, 2018) On December 11, 2018, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill (New Zealand Legislation website), which “will introduce an exception and a statutory defence for terminally ill people to possess and use illicit cannabis and to possess a cannabis utensil; provide a regulation-making power to enable the setting of standards that products manufactured, imported, and supplied under licence must meet; and amend Schedule 2 of the [Misuse of Drugs] Act so that cannabidiol (CBD) and CBD products are no longer classed as controlled drugs.” (Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill, NEW ZEALAND PARLIAMENT (last visited Dec. 12, 2018).) Previously, according to the government’s explanatory note on the Bill, while there was “a legal pathway for people to obtain cannabis on prescription from a medical practitioner, access to affordable cannabis products remains problematic for New Zealanders.” (Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill 12-1, Explanatory Note, New Zealand Legislation website. For general information on medicinal cannabis in New Zealand, see Medicinal Cannabis, MINISTRY OF HEALTH (last updated Sept. 14, 2018).)

The Bill was introduced in December 2017 as part of the new Labour Party-led government’s “100 Day Plan,” which included a “commitment to make medicinal cannabis more available to people with terminal illnesses or chronic pain.” (Press Release, David Clark, Medicinal Cannabis to Ease Suffering (Dec. 20, 2017), New Zealand government’s Beehive website.) The aim of the Bill is to increase the supply of quality medicinal cannabis over time, including New Zealand-made products. (Id.) However, as an interim measure, until the legal regime for medicinal cannabis is in place, the Bill establishes a legal defense for the possession and use of cannabis so that certain seriously-ill people can use it without being criminalized; cannabis itself remains an illicit substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. (Id. See also Henry Cooke, Medicinal Cannabis Bill Passes, with Regulated Market Promised Within a Year and a Legal Defence Until Then, STUFF.CO.NZ (Dec. 11, 2018).)

The government made changes to the Bill during the Committee Stage of the debate on the Bill in Parliament, some of which resulted from discussions with the Labour Party’s coalition partners. The changes will:

  • Alter the eligibility for people who can use the statutory defence for the use of illicit cannabis so that it covers people in palliation (rather than limiting it to the terminally ill in their last 12 months)
  • Set a requirement for the regulations for the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme to be made no later than a year after the law comes into effect
  • Make clear that varieties of cannabis that are already in New Zealand can be used for medicinal products
  • Make technical changes to the description of allowable THC thresholds in CBD medicinal products[.] (Press Release, David Parker, Changes Signalled to Medicinal Cannabis Legislation (Nov. 29, 2018), Beehive website.)

Upon the passage of the Bill, the Minister of Health, David Parker, stated that the vote

clears the way for the creation of a medicinal cannabis scheme that will allow New Zealand companies to manufacture medicinal cannabis products for both the local and international market. Regulations, licensing rules and quality standards will be set on expert advice within a year of the law coming into effect.

These medicinal products will be available on prescription. This will be particularly welcome as another option for people who live with chronic pain. Additionally the Bill removes cannabidiol as a controlled drug, so it becomes a prescription medicine. (Press Release, David Parker, Medicinal Cannabis Legislation to Help Ease Suffering (Dec. 11, 2018), Beehive website.)

The next steps in implementing the legislation will see the Ministry of Health releasing “a paper for public consultation seeking feedback on the quality standards, licensing system and regulations required as part of the medicinal cannabis scheme.” (Id.) In addition, “[a] medicinal cannabis oversight panel will be set up to provide feedback and expert advice on the development of the medicinal cannabis scheme.” (Id.)

According to the report on the Bill produced by the Health Committee, of the 1,786 submissions received on the Bill, only 1% did not support the intent of the Bill. (Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill 12-1: Report of the Health Committee 2 (July 2018).) During the debate in Parliament, the opposition National Party argued that the Bill amounts to “decriminalisation by stealth,” and that, while the Party has compassion for those trying to access medicinal cannabis, “this bill was not the way to do it.” (Cooke, supraSee also Lucy Bennett, Medicinal Cannabis Bill Passes Third Reading, NZ HERALD (Dec. 11, 2018).)