Cannabis is illegal in New Zealand. Under the country’s Misuse of Drugs Act of 1975, the unauthorized possession of marijuana – in any amount – is punishable by law.
However, according to statistics, cannabis is the most widely used prohibited drug in the country and is part of the top four most widely used recreational substance – after caffeine, tobacco, and tobacco. In fact, more than 13 per cent of 16- to 64-year-olds in the country’s population of more than four million use cannabis. Because of this, New Zealand has the world’s 9th highest cannabis consumption level.
Penalties under current anti-cannabis law
Anyone caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis may face a jail term of up to three months or a fine of $500. Meanwhile, those guilty of marijuana cultivation can face a maximum jail term of seven years or a fine of $2,000. Selling or manufacturing cannabis, on the other hand, can lead to a maximum of 14 years in prison.
How about cannabis for medicinal purposes?
As of April 2016, the only approved cannabis product in New Zealand is Sativex, which is the trade name for nabiximols, a specific cannabis extract containing active cannabinoids THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). In order to get Sativex, a patient needs prescription from a specialist doctor and only after meeting very strict criteria.
The problem about this is that Sativex is unaffordable for many patients who need it, selling for a hefty unsubsidized price of $1,200.
And because there is a significant market for medicinal cannabis in New Zealand yet with very limited legal and affordable supply, a black market has emerged across the country. This black market is illegally connecting people who need medicinal cannabis with those who have access to the plant.
Reform for medical cannabis legislation
Earlier this year, a new bill seeking amendment to the current cannabis legislation was drawn. The bill seeks to loosen some of the restrictions currently in effect with regard to medicinal cannabis.
According to Julie Anne Genter, Green Party Spokesperson for Health, the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill would legalize cannabis for medical purposes. This means that people suffering from a debilitating illness or qualifying medical condition will be allowed to use cannabis and cannabis products as part of their treatment so long as they have the approval of and prescription from a certified medical practitioner.
Under the proposed bill, the following constitute a qualifying medical condition:
- Severe chronic immune disorder
- Terminal illness
- Chronic back pain
- Severe chronic nervous system disorder
- Any other condition that may be alleviated by cannabis, as certified by a doctor
Moreover, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne announced that the Cabinet has accepted his recommendation, upon the expert advice of the advisory committee on drugs, that CBD be taken out from the list of prohibited substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act because of its therapeutic benefits.
The proposed Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill is supported by the Maori Party, Labour, and Act. However, New Zealand First is opposed to it, unless there is a referendum. National, meanwhile, is on the fence.
Many are still positive, though, with the amendment getting support from the public. In fact, according to a survey, 71% of New Zealanders are in favor of having a medicinal cannabis regime in the country.
Currently, the bill to legalize medicinal cannabis is before the House and will likely be debated next year.
Despite the current uncertainty, many see this small proposed change to the law as a step in the right direction and as something that would have a significant effect to the future of cannabis.