New Zealand's Medicinal Cannabis Amendment Bill gets its first reading

This Bill amends the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. The Bill will provide a regulation-making power to enable the setting of standards that products manufactured, imported, and supplied under licence must meet. It will also amend Schedule 2 of the Act so that cannabidiol (CBD) and CBD products are no longer classed as controlled drugs.

To follow is a complete transcript of the First Reading of New Zealand's Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill by the MP in charge, Hon Dr David Clark.

Hon Dr David Clark

Minister of Health

I move, that the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill be now read a first time. I nominate the Health Committee to consider the bill.

The bill amends the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. This bill makes three key changes: it provides people who have a terminal illness a statutory defence to the charge of possessing and using cannabis, it will allow us to make regulations to set quality standards for medicinal cannabis products, and it removes cannabidiol from the Misuse of Drugs Act so that it is no longer a controlled drug. This bill does not make any changes to the recreational use of cannabis.

This bill will make medicinal cannabis more readily available and will help bring relief to people suffering a terminal illness or to those in chronic pain. New Zealanders are compassionate people. No one wants to see people suffering, and medicinal cannabis is an option that allows some people to find relief. The bill will give more people the choice to access medicinal cannabis should they wish to. While New Zealanders are able to access medicinal cannabis products now on prescription, there are few quality products available, and they are expensive. It can take weeks to import them, and there is a shortage of medicinal cannabis products available worldwide. New Zealand now has the opportunity to be a part of the solution.

A major part of this bill is the development of a medicinal cannabis scheme. This will include an advisory committee to review the current requirements for prescribing medicinal cannabis, setting minimum product quality standards to improve patient safety and give medical practitioners confidence, and allow for the domestic cultivation and manufacture of medicinal cannabis products. In time, this scheme will lead to a greater supply of quality medicinal cannabis products worldwide, including products made here in New Zealand. The bill will allow for quality standards to be set for all medicinal cannabis products, whether produced domestically or imported.

It is vital that quality standards are set for all products. Medicinal cannabis products that are not produced to a quality standard may be unsafe, and when we don't know the composition of the products, they may contain potential psychoactive effects. Products may contain contaminants such as pesticides. Health practitioners are right to be cautious about prescribing these products. The medicinal cannabis scheme will assist us to alleviate these concerns by supplying products that will have a quality associated with them that is a known composition. Under the medicinal cannabis scheme, manufacturers will have to show that the composition is true to label and products are free from contaminants. As a result, there will be trustworthy quality standards.

We consider that health practitioners are best placed to decide whether a person would benefit from medicinal cannabis. This is why we will continue to require a prescription from a health practitioner to access medicinal cannabis under the scheme. We also have international obligations to meet under United Nations drug conventions. The convention requires a government agency to oversee the cultivation and manufacture of cannabis product produced domestically. This agency will be within the Ministry of Health. We will establish a medicinal cannabis advisory committee early this year. Currently, aside from Sativex for specific cases, health practitioners must get approval from the Ministry of Health before they can prescribe cannabis. The committee will review this requirement and will look at information needs for patients and health practitioners. This advisory committee will include doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and consumer representatives. The development of the scheme and agency will be a key focus throughout 2018.

The scheme will take time to develop and implement. We know, however, that in the interim there will be people with a terminal illness using illicit cannabis. That is why this bill establishes a defence to the charge of using and possessing cannabis or a cannabis utensil for people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Giving the terminally ill a statutory defence for the possession and use of illicit cannabis will mean they are not criminalised in their final days. This is the compassionate thing to do while the medicinal cannabis scheme is established. Terminally ill people are likely to rely on family, whānau, and friends to source illicit cannabis for them. We do not propose extending the statutory defence to cover the range of people who could supply cannabis to terminally ill people. This would greatly widen the scope of the defence. We want to keep the scope narrow, as it's intended as a compassionate measure until the scheme is established. I intend to address supply through the development of the scheme, which, once established, will ensure quality products are readily available.

The bill will also remove cannabidiol from the list of controlled drugs. Cannabidiol is a substance found in cannabis that has potential therapeutic value and little or no psychoactive properties. The bill will make it a prescription medicine rather than a controlled drug. The change to the legal status of cannabidiol responds to the advice of the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs, which considers drug classification issues. They found that based on the low risk of cannabidiol and its potential therapeutic value, the proposed change would be reasonable.

This change will bring New Zealand into line with other countries such as Australia, who made a similar change in 2015. The World Health Organization late last year, about the time we announced our intention to legislate, noted that cannabidiol could have therapeutic value and did not carry any addiction risks.

This legislation will not please all of the campaigners for medicinal cannabis, but it goes further than any previous Parliament has gone. It represents real progress in making these products more widely available. This bill is a real step forward that all Government support parties are pleased to sign up to. If Parliament wants to go further, it has the opportunity when it considers a member's bill in Chlöe Swarbrick's name. The public will also have the chance to have their say when the Government bill is considered by the Health Committee.

To reiterate, the bill will develop a medicinal cannabis scheme, it will introduce a statutory defence for terminal illness so that people are not charged for possessing and using cannabis, there will be some regulations set to make sure that medicinal cannabis products in the supply scheme meet quality standards, and it will remove cannabidiol from the Misuse of Drugs Act so that it is no longer a controlled drug.

I commend this bill to the House.

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