Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act

Information about the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act which came into effect in December 2018.

Latest updates:

  • 7 March 2019: The Synthetic Drugs Response Regulatory Impact Statement has been published.
  • 18 December: The Bill became an Act.
  • 17 December: The amended Bill received royal assent.
  • 11 December: The Bill (amended by the Supplementary Order Paper) was read for the third and last time.
  • 4 December 2018: The Government tabled a Supplementary Order Paper to amend the Bill at the Committee of the whole House stage.
  • 29 November 2018: The Bill was read (unchanged) for the second time.
  • 25 July 2018: The Health Committee reported back to the House, having received 1786 written submissions and heard 158 oral submissions. The Committee was unable to reach agreement and therefore could not recommend that the Bill proceed.
  • 30 January 2018: The Bill was read for the first time and referred to the Health Committee.
  • 20 December 2017: The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill was tabled in Parliament – Read the Health Minister's media release – Medicinal cannabis to ease suffering (Beehive website).

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Aim of the Amendment Act

The Act means: 

  • those requiring palliation have an exception and statutory defence to the charge of possession or use of illicit cannabis
  • quality standards will be able to be set for medicinal cannabis products and all stages of production
  • that the only cannabis compounds that are controlled drugs are tetrahydrocannabinols and related psychoactive substances. Cannabidiol and any substances related to tetrahydrocannabinols that are not psychoactive are not controlled drugs. 

The Act is intended to improve access to medicinal cannabis based on principles of fairness, quality and safety, and compassion.

The intent of the Act is to improve access to medicinal cannabis products made to a quality standard.

Timeline of legislation

From 18 December 2018 the following changes are in effect:

  • individuals who require palliation have an exception and statutory defense for possessing and using cannabis
  • cannabidiol is no longer a controlled drug.

The Minister of Health must recommend the making of regulations setting quality standards for medicinal cannabis products within a year of the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act 2018 coming into effect. These regulations will be a key element in the establishment of the Government’s Medicinal Cannabis Scheme. The objective of the Scheme is to improve access to quality medicinal cannabis products.

In the meantime, people who wish to access medicinal cannabis can still do so through their doctor. No medicinal cannabis products are subsidised by New Zealand’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency, PHARMAC, at this time.

Compassionate measures for those requiring palliation

The Act provides people who require palliation an exception and a statutory defence to the charge of possessing or using illicit cannabis, or a cannabis utensil.

This is a compassionate measure while the Government establishes the medicinal cannabis scheme. The objective of the scheme is to increase patient access to quality medicinal cannabis products on prescription.

Illicit cannabis means any cannabis product not prescribed by a doctor. This can be in a range of forms such as dried leaf material, oils and balms.

Palliation is an approach which aims to alleviate pain and suffering for a person with an advanced progressive life limiting condition, who is nearing the end of their life. The Government considers this a better description of the group of patients the compassionate provisions were designed for than the term ‘terminal illness’ which was originally used. Approximately 25,000 New Zealanders could benefit from palliative care. We expect this group of patients would be covered by the provision but it is not known how many would choose to use illicit cannabis.

The provisions mean patients who have been diagnosed by a medical practitioner or nurse practitioner as requiring palliation can possess and use illicit cannabis and cannabis utensils. Patients will need to hold evidence from a medical practitioner or nurse practitioner that states they have been diagnosed as requiring palliation to avoid prosecution or provide similar evidence to defend any charges in court.

A written statement from a medical or nurse practitioner that a patient requires palliation as defined in the Act (and above) needs to include sufficient information to identify the patient, the practitioner and their registration details, and the date the patient was seen (statements should be renewed after a year). It is not a prescription.

The exception and statutory defence is a compassionate approach acknowledging some people requiring palliation are currently choosing to use illicit cannabis to relieve their symptoms. It means that they will not receive a criminal conviction if they have been diagnosed as requiring palliation by a medical or nurse practitioner.

See Guidance for medicinal practitioners on the statutory defence and exemption provisions for more information.

The Medicinal Cannabis Scheme

Currently it is difficult to access quality medicinal cannabis products. The Medicinal Cannabis Scheme will seek to address this through:

  • enabling domestic cultivation and manufacture of medicinal cannabis products, and
  • enabling the setting of minimum quality standards for products and all stages of production
  • reviewing of how cannabis is prescribed.

The Act establishes a regulation-making power to set standards for the quality of domestically manufactured and imported cannabis products and all stages of production. The Ministry of Health is currently developing the detail of these standards for public consultation in the first half of 2019.

The Scheme is intended to support medical practitioners by increasing the range and availability of quality cannabis products, and providing information on which products meet the quality standards to prescribers.

An agency to oversee the cultivation and manufacture of cannabis produced domestically will be established to make sure we comply with our obligations under the United Nations drug conventions. The agency would also oversee the import of cannabis produced overseas. The timeframe for the development and implementation of the scheme is still to be confirmed but it will not be implemented until regulations are made.

Read more about what the changes mean for licence holders - See Growing and producing medicinal cannabis products.

If you want to be kept up to date on the progress of the Scheme, including information on participating in the public consultation, please email medicinal_cannabis@health.govt.nz.

Medicinal Cannabis Oversight Panel

We know these proposals will impact on health professionals. A Medicinal Cannabis Oversight Panel will be established to bring together experts (such as clinicians and pharmacists), representatives from industry, Māori and consumers. The Oversight Panel will provide feedback on proposals as the scheme is developed and post-implementation. Their views on the current prescribing process will also be sought. This will be a valuable way to engage with a range of health practitioners and other interested parties to gain a fuller understanding of concerns, information needs and process issues. This will supplement the public consultation that will take place in the second quarter of 2019.

Excluding some cannabinoids from control under the Act

The only cannabis compounds that are now controlled drugs are tetrahydrocannabinols and related psychoactive substances. Cannabidiol and any substances related to tetrahydrocannabinols that are not psychoactive are not controlled drugs.

Cannabinoids are a family of substances that have similar structures. Tetrahydrocannabinols (THCs) are a family of largely psychoactive substances that share similar structures and are a subset of the cannabinoid family. The main psychoactive component of cannabis is a THC.

The Act clarifies that while all THCs are controlled under the Act, substances that are related to THCs will only be controlled under the Act if they are capable of inducing more than a minor psychoactive effect, by any means. The words ‘is capable of inducing more than a minor psychoactive effect, by any means’ includes a chemical that can be altered by a simple conversion technique (such as heating) to produce a chemical that has a more than a minor psychoactive effect. This would include tetrahydrocannabinolic acids, which can be converted to tetrahydrocannabinols themselves by a simple conversion technique (eg, THCA converts to THC with heating).

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a substance found in cannabis with potential therapeutic value and little or no psychoactive properties. The Act reflects the advice of the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs by descheduling CBD as a controlled drug, making it a prescription medicine only..

The Act means the amount of cannabinoids in CBD products will only be restricted if they are THCs or psychoactive related substances. This will make CBD products easier to manufacture and while minimising risks to individuals from the psychoactive components of cannabis and minimising the risk of diversion and abuse.

  • Individuals are able to get CBD products on prescription from a doctor without needing permission from the Ministry of Health. Read more about CBD products.

Travelling with medicinal cannabis products

No individual may leave or enter New Zealand with illicit cannabis, even if they have been diagnosed by a medical or nurse practitioner as requiring palliation. You can travel with 1 months’ supply of medicines that are controlled drugs (eg, Sativex) or 3 months’ supply of medicines that are not controlled drugs (eg, CBD products) provided you are able to show they have been lawfully supplied to you. It is your responsibility to familiarise yourself with, and comply with, the requirements of the country you are travelling to.

For further information on bringing controlled drugs (eg, high THC products) into New Zealand read the Bringing medicines into New Zealand section.

For further information on bringing medicines (eg, CBD products) into New Zealand, refer to Medsafe’s website:

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