New Zealand could miss the boat as an exporter of medicinal cannabis, horticulture expert Dr Mike Nichols said.

Nichols, writing in the latest issue of the horticulture magazine, NZGrower, said New Zealand could miss out in much the same way as it did with the opium poppy trade, which is now dominated by Tasmania.

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"The potential to grow medicinal cannabis in New Zealand at this point in time as an export crop would appear to be excellent," Nichols said.

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"The value of a kilogram of medicinal cannabis compared with a kilogram of Pinus radiata is a clear example showing that New Zealand should be producing, and exporting, high value and low volume products," Nichols said.

It appeared that Australia would take the lead in terms of relaxing the laws around medicinal cannabis, "while in New Zealand this still appears to be on the distant horizon".

The attitude to medicinal cannabis has relaxed in recent times, with about half the states in the United States allowing it, and three states allowing the legal growing of cannabis for recreational purposes.

Nichols said research carried out by the late Ralph Ballinger in Blenheim the 1950s on developing a opium poppy industry was not followed up on.

Instead, the industry went to Australia, and Tasmania now produces more than 50 per cent of the world's legal morphine and codeine.

"Just to rub salt into the wound, trials with the opium poppy were undertaken New Zealand last summer - only 50 years too late. "Will medicinal cannabis provide a similar example?" he said.

Nichols, a retired Massey University teacher and a regular contributor to NZGrower, is one of only 25 honorary members of the International Society for Horticulture Science.