A change to New Zealand’s Medicinal Cannabis laws is a-coming. But what does the proposed law change means for patients, doctors, growers and everyone in between?
We've been talking about medicinal cannabis for ages now. Where’s the law at?
Right now, the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill is at select committee stage, where the public has had their opportunity to submit feedback on the first draft of the bill before it goes to be debated by Parliament. The committee received 2000 submissions—although unfortunately, about 300 submitters included information that either admitted to criminal wrongdoing or included sensitive medical information. Since submissions are public record, the committee had to go back to those 300 offering to anonymise, remove or leave their submission.
What does the law cover?
The first key thing the bill does is to create a legal defence for terminally ill people with a year left to live to possess and use cannabis. So if you’re dying, use cannabis, and get apprehended by the police, you’ll have a legal way out of charges.
The second thing is to create regulatory power to let us set the standards for medicinal cannabis products to be manufactured, imported, and supplied under licence. So that’s defining the legal framework for any companies or individuals who want to grow, process and sell medicinal cannabis here. It will also remove cannabidiol from the schedule of controlled drugs.
What doesn’t it cover?
The legal defence section of the law doesn’t cover people with chronic conditions who aren’t terminally ill. So if you suffer from, for example, chronic pain, or some forms of epilepsy, which medicinal cannabis has been used to treat elsewhere, it won’t help. A number of submitters including NZ Drug Foundation’s Ross Bell argued to the select committee that the bill should be extended to also cover those with severe and debilitating conditions that weren’t terminal. Also omitted from the bill is any legal protection for ‘green fairies’—the currently illegal growers who provide medicinal products.
So what’s the next step?
The Select Committee is due to report back on July 30. Then it will go to second reading, debate, and vote in Parliament.
What are the things to watch for in their report?
Any changes to the key points above—especially provisions for growers or ‘green fairies’, and provisions for those suffering chronic, non-terminal illnesses. The second part of the bill establishes a legal framework for manufacture and import, which could help solve some of the supply issues in the long term—currently, medicinal cannabis can’t be produced locally, isn’t subsidised, and is extremely costly for patients. So local producers like Hikurangi Industries and Helius will be watching closely to see how that framework develops. Questions like: Will those with criminal records be able to gain producer licences? What level of certification will be mandatory? Could all have huge impact on who gets to produce medicinal cannabis in New Zealand (or whether it's produced locally at all) and therefore who the financial beneficiaries are.
What does that mean for patients?
If you’re a terminal patient and you want to consume medicinal cannabis, it will be possible to do that legally. But supply will continue to be an issue. If you’re using a ‘green fairy’ to secure supply, they’re still as at risk of prosecution as ever. In some ways, that’s not a huge step forward—after all, under Ministry of Health guidelines doctors can already approve specific treatments involving Cannabis products, but the cost is prohibitive. Pharmac doesn’t yet subsidise medicinal cannabis products, and currently-approved product Sativex costs patients around $1000 a month.
And what does all that mean for recreational?
Not much. The Medicinal Cannabis Amendment Bill won’t have any effect on the legality of recreational cannabis use, beyond the optics of normalising the controlled use and production of the drug in New Zealand. Any changes to cannabis’ legality for the non-terminally ill looks like it will have to be shepherded in via a referendum, which won’t be at least until next year. The government is in the process of deciding on a date for the referendum, and debating whether to hold in 2019 or 2020. Regardless of when it’s held, the referendum is non-binding—meaning the government isn’t committed to a law change even if New Zealand votes yes. Having said that, a strong mandate would lay the groundwork for any law changes down the track. As Green Party leader James Shaw said: “There's not a lot of point holding a referendum if you don't pay any attention to the result."