People with a prescription will be able to pick up medicinal cannabis from a pharmacy under legislation introduced today.
The law change will ensure terminally ill people with less than 12 months to live won't be prosecuted for having illicit cannabis. Although it is not legal for them to use cannabis, they won't be criminalised for doing so.
Health Minister David Clark said the compassionate measure legalises what some people are already doing, and will ensure no prosecutions while the new prescribing framework is set-up.
Much of the detail of how the new scheme will work is still unclear, but it aims to make medicinal cannabis more readily available for people with terminal illnesses or chronic pain.
An advisory committee will review the requirements for prescribing medicinal cannabis products, including the requirement for a doctor to apply to the Ministry of Health for approval to prescribe products containing THC.
The committee is also to give advice about how the prescribing process will work once the new medicinal cannabis scheme is running.
Clark said, based on the Australian experience, it was likely to take up to 24 months before medicinal cannabis was manufactured and sold in New Zealand.
"Many New Zealanders will have watched a loved one struggling with a terminal illness. Medicinal cannabis gives them the option to find relief and make the most of the time left to them," Clark said.
"There is increasing evidence to support the use of medicinal cannabis. Just last week, the World Health Organisation noted that cannabidiol could have therapeutic value and did not carry any addiction risks."
The legislation will be supported by New Zealand First and the Green Party. To secure New Zealand First support it does not go as far as measures contained in a separate private member's bill in the name of Green MP Chloe Swarbrick, which is awaiting its first reading.
It would amend the Misuse of Drugs Act to make a specific exemption for any person with a qualifying medical condition to grow, possess or use the cannabis plant and/or cannabis products for therapeutic purposes, provided they have the support of a registered medical practitioner.
This exemption would also apply to an immediate relative or other nominated person, so they can administer or supply cannabis to the person.
Only two medicinal cannabis products are available in New Zealand, and a doctor must apply to the Ministry of Health to prescribe them. There is no Government funding for such prescriptions.
National is yet to say whether it will back the new medicinal cannabis legislation, with leader Bill English saying they would wait to see the detail.
Swarbrick said the Government bill introduced today represented a significant improvement from the status quo, but the Greens were disappointed it limits access to a legal defence to only those with a terminal illness.
"Parliament has the opportunity to improve the Bill through the select committee process and through supporting my Member's Bill, which offers sick New Zealanders better access to medicinal cannabis pain relief."
Ross Bell, Drug Foundation executive director, welcomed the legislation as providing a "solid framework" to oversee the domestic cultivation and manufacture of medicinal cannabis products.
"The proposed scheme is very similar to models that have been working well in places such as The Netherlands and Canada. The encouragement of a domestic supply market could be a game changer by expanding the range of products, as well as addressing the current expense of importing products from overseas."
The estimated two years to set-up the scheme was too long, Bell said, and medical cannabis patients needed to be represented on the advisory committee.