Today the Government passed New Zealand's medicinal cannabis bill, which will pave the way for a regulated scheme within a year.
The legislation lays the groundwork for a medicinal cannabis industry with regulations to be in place by 2020. The third and final reading took place this afternoon, and passed with the support of Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens.
National withdrew its support on the basis that the bill needed to go further.
Health Minister David Clark said "This is the most progressive legislation on medicinal cannabis that has ever passed through the Parliament."
"We're doing things to make sure supply will be more available and more affordable over time, and we're taking a compassionate measure in the meantime to give a defence to those to use illicit cannabis who are in the final stages of life."
Clark has said the Ministry of Health would release a paper on the planned medicinal scheme early next year and that would be open to public consultation.
New Zealanders will be disappointed that the bill didn't go further to provide more details about how the scheme would work. The select committee and the Minister of Health have introduced a handful of amendments to address some of the concerns highlighted by the likes of Helius, MCANZ, patients and advocates. However, the passing of the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill is by no means the end of the process. Uncertainty remains as the manual has still to be written.
From here, Ministry of Health officials are now tasked with developing a 'Medical Cannabis Scheme' and, due to the lack of details in the bill, this presents a challenge.
Paul Manning, executive director of Helius said "On the face of it, the development of a licensing regime, the introduction of quality standards, and the establishment of a 'medicinal cannabis agency' reflect some of what the industry wanted to date, but the devil will be in the detail."
What’s more the regulations will take up to a year to establish, assuming an extension of time is not asked for.
Official Information Act requests have revealed that the Ministry has been working to a timeline that assumes a "go-live date" for the use of medicinal cannabis in mid-2020. Exactly how we should interpret this is unclear, but Helius expects this is when medicinal cannabis products will be on pharmacy shelves, available for Kiwi patients on prescription.
New Zealand's general election will take place in 2020, and if adult use decriminalisation of cannabis is also a referendum question, many of the wider issues surrounding cannabis may be played out by conservative commentators, candidates and parties. This will be a challenging time to put a workable ‘Medicinal Cannabis Scheme’ in place.
A recent Horizon survey, commissioned by Helius, highlighted the public’s overwhelming support for wider access than what is currently being promoted, with a card-based access scheme being the ideal in most minds. Now we will need to ensure that officials do not water down the intent the bill and stay true to the expectations of the public.
"We want to make medicinal cannabis affordable and accessible. To do that, we need a regulatory regime that will ensure international-quality products, as well as a scheme that will allow ready access for all New Zealanders." says Mr Manning.
Because the bill's scope is undefined, and has very few bottom-line expectations, the industry will need to work with MOH over the coming months – and encourage New Zealanders to engage in the consultation next year.
"The Minister’s statements suggest he wants wider and quicker availability, a greater range of products, and to provide greater certainty for the industry. These intents must now be reflected in the Scheme."
Over the next 12 months Helius will continue to positively work with the media, MPs and other stakeholders to keep the criticalness of Health officials’ work in developing the Scheme, top of mind.
"It is critical to deliver an exemplary scheme and industry for the benefit of not only sick New Zealanders, but to the wider economy and society," says Mr Manning.
We are excited to see the bill pass. Now the hard work begins.