Is New Zealand's Cannabis Regulation Stagnating?

Stephen Andrews
24 Nov 2021

The dreams of over a million New Zealanders—1,406,973, to be exact—were crushed in last year's referendum when a question of whether to legalize the adult use of cannabis did not pass on the ballots. The number represents 48.4 percent of the vote in favor of new legislation against a total of 50.7 percent who voted no. How has the island nation been doing in terms of cannabis regulation ever since?

New Zealand is currently stuck with medical research on cannabis. The government has announced new plans to expand scientific funding, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, more research likely translates to a delayed adoption of comprehensive regulation on the medical market. 

The New Zealand government initially announced it would permit the use of cannabis for medical purposes in 2017. Kiwis then had to wait until 2020 to benefit from a law that would regulate cannabis medicals. Like every new regulation, it was limited in nature. 

Under the country's law, Kiwis must obtain a prescription from a doctor before accessing any medicinal cannabis goods. Personal imports of medicinal cannabis, such as making orders online, are prohibited under law; only a doctor or pharmacist can supply medicines. 

New Zealand's Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor recently announced that the Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund is to contribute $760,000 to an existing $1.9 million, three-year medicinal cannabis program run by GreenLab. The grant should accelerate New Zealand's medicinal cannabis industry as the research outcomes help determine the country's future cannabis policy. 

"This investment will see Greenlab's researchers carrying out rigorous trials and lab testing at its leased facilities at Lincoln University to ensure a consistently high-quality and effective pharmaceutical product," O'Connor said according to the New Zealand Herald

The minister said there was a lack of available scientific information about best cultivation practices for therapeutically active compounds. 

A rigorous research infrastructure will be used to screen the unknown New Zealand cannabinoids and terpene genetic profiles. The research will aim to standardize cultivation and extraction practices and share this knowledge with licensed Kiwi growers.

O'Connor said, "this funding will ensure these growers have access to essential industry knowledge and insights much further and faster than would have otherwise been possible."

Kiwis mostly rely on imports to secure their national stash of medical cannabis. The Ministry of Health has so far issued 37 medicinal cannabis cultivation licenses. Once home cultivation capacities increase, hopes are that the country reaches a point where it stops imports and ramps up exports of cannabis flower.

Less has been told about enhancing the regulations for New Zealand's medical cannabis programs any time soon, however. If more research means waiting another three years to advance the legal medical market and patients' access to cannabis drugs, then it may be a bit too much waiting. For struggling patients, this likely is infuriating.

Cannabis prescriptions can be a life-changing experience for individuals suffering from chronic aches, mental health disorders, sleeplessness, and restlessness. There's certainly enough evidence out there that cannabis can help with treating any of these conditions.

The timid government response to improve accessibility only seems to reinforce the sentiment that, when it comes to cannabis, New Zealand's politicians, policymakers, doctors, and police are not on the same page. Politicians have communicated to the public that they support legalization. One of them is Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, one of the PMs with best approval rates anywhere in the world, who said she voted in favor of cannabis at last year's referendum. However, Ardern did so only after the vote was closed, avoiding any influence on the voting outcome.

Then, the referendum narrowly failed, but reports suggest that people became more confident to medicate with cannabis, sometimes thinking they don't need a doctor's consent. Which is against New Zealand's law, and the police are likely to punish someone whom they find breaching the law. And then there are the doctors, a vast majority of whom are not educated on cannabis and are therefore often reluctant to explore treatment options with patients. 

Representatives from the Ministry of Health's Medicinal Cannabis Agency said GPs hesitated to sign off cannabis prescriptions because they lacked information on how and why it should be prescribed. An educational resource for GPs is anticipated at the end of 2021. 

Lastly, it does cost to access legal, medical pot in New Zealand. The monthly costs for cannabis drugs can go up to $200 or even more. And that's not the kind of sum the government is going to subsidize. Nor it's money that everyone can afford. 

Perhaps only full decriminalization can brighten up New Zealand's medical cannabis program. But it seems that's asking a bit too much at this hour.

Stephen Andrews