New Zealand Passes Medicinal Cannabis Bill
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On December 11 2018, the “Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill” was presented for its third reading in front of New Zealand’s Government, where it was then passed following the support of the Labour, Greens, and NZ First parties.
The bill formalizes a commitment to opening a regulated medicinal cannabis scheme in the country within a year and gives those in palliative care a legal defense for using cannabis medicinally in the meantime. The bill also includes a clause that would declassify cannabidiol (CBD) — a cannabinoid with recognized therapeutic benefit — as a controlled substance.
With the bill having passed its third reading it now moves on to receive the Royal Assent in order to become law. The Royal Assent signifies the bill as having the approval of the Queen, who is the Head of State for New Zealand, and is given by the Governor-General as the Sovereign’s representative. All bills that get written into law in New Zealand must go through this process.
Content of the Bill
Medicinal cannabis has strong support in the New Zealand Parliament, with three of the country’s four largest parties backing this bill. The National party, which holds 55 of 120 seats in Parliament and is the official opposition to the Labour/NZ First coalition that is currently in power, opposed this piece of legislation on the grounds that they would prefer their own proposed bill rather than any actual opposition to medicinal cannabis.
The most immediate changes to come about as the result of the medicinal cannabis bill are the increased protections for people who use cannabis to deal with pain or other symptoms at the end of their life, and the end of cannabidiol product prohibition.
Terminally ill people and those in palliative care will be allowed to use medicinal cannabis immediately thanks to a statute that was inserted into the wider bill during the second reading in Parliament. The statute was championed by ministers from NZ First and is intended to act as a bridge between the passing of the bill and the beginning of the full Medicinal Cannabis Scheme which will make medicinal cannabis more widely available. The statute will also allow domestic cultivation and the introduction of quality standards and a dedicated medicinal cannabis agency; it’s also thought the scheme may include the licensing of pharmacies to distribute medicinal cannabis products to eligible patients.
The bill also contains a clause pushed for by the Green Party which sets the goal date for the start of the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme to be no more than 12 months after the medicinal cannabis amendment bill comes into effect. In relation to the scheme, the Green Party also pushed for the allowance of cannabis strains native to New Zealand to be used in the scheme in addition to imported cannabis product from other countries with regulated medicinal cannabis programs.
David Clark, New Zealand’s Minister for Health, has praised the bill, saying that he was “delighted” to see it passed.
"This is the most progressive legislation on medicinal cannabis that has ever passed through the Parliament," said Clark to Stuff.co.nz.
"We're doing things to make sure supply will be more available and more affordable over time, and we're taking a compassionate measure in the meantime to give a defense to those to use illicit cannabis who are in the final stages of life.”
Clark also told Stuff.co.nz that the Ministry of Health is preparing to release a paper that will further detail the plans for the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme in the early part of 2019, and that the plans will be open to public consultation.
Opposition from both sides
In the early stages of the bill’s development, the legislation was widely critiqued by anti-cannabis campaigners; in a more surprising move, criticism was also leveled at the bill from some pro-drug reform groups.
In April, when the bill was still in the committee stages, the New Zealand Drug Foundation addressed the Health Select Committee, expressing concerns that the bill did not go far enough to support groups who feel the need to use medicinal cannabis products. In this early stage, the bill only included protection from prosecution for terminally ill people with less than 12 months to live. The Foundation argued that it is rarely terminally ill patients who are being prosecuted on cannabis charges, and that the bill’s protections should be extended to include all patients with severe and debilitating conditions. At the passing of the bill through its third reading, protections had been extended slightly to include all patients in palliative care, not just those people with less than a year to live.
While the widening of the bill towards the latter stages of the process may have appeased some of the pro-reform activists, many members of the country’s National party were dissatisfied with the final form of the bill, deriding it as “decriminalization by stealth”.
In front of Parliament, the National leader Simon Bridges criticized the bill, postulating, “what will the police do when they're outside a school and someone, under this bill, is smoking cannabis? What will they do? I don't reckon they'll do much at all.”
“Shame on the House for passing this terrible, unsafe, dangerous bill,” Bridges continued.
The National’s spokesperson for health, Shane Reti also echoed the sentiments of his party leader, while referring to the National’s own medicinal cannabis proposals and emphasizing that the party does support further medicinal cannabis reform and has compassion for those patients who are seeking medicinal cannabis for therapeutic purposes.
"That's why we did the work and created a comprehensive medicinal cannabis regime that widened access to medicinal cannabis and provided a framework for licensing high-quality domestic production under sensible and achievable regulations.”
"We offered to share our regime with the government but egos got in the way and we were turned down.”
The bill is expected to become a law within the next few days and the protections for those in palliative care will begin immediately. Other patients, who may be seeking medicinal cannabis for conditions such as chronic pain or epilepsy, will have to wait until the launch of the proposed Medicinal Cannabis Scheme before they are allowed to access the drug legally.