New Zealand passed a law after its third reading Tuesday that allows thousands of patients to legally use medical cannabis, as the country gears up for a referendum on recreational cannabis.
The bill, called the Misuse of Drugs (Medical Cannabis) Amendment, removes restrictions on medical cannabis. While it will take up to a year for regulations to be put in place for patients with conditions such as chronic pain, the bill provides legal defence for terminally ill patients to consume cannabis as soon as it has received royal assent.
Legal defence was first only provided to patients with one year or less to live, but was expanded to all palliative care patients in its second reading.
Products with cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive component of cannabis used to treat inflammation, pain and anxiety, were also fully decriminalized.
The bill comes ahead of a planned referendum on recreational cannabis use, which the government has promised will be held within two years.
New Zealand’s Labour Party, Greens and New Zealand First Party supported the bill.
Health Minister Dr. David Clark said that the new law will help ease patients’ pain.
“This will be particularly welcome as another option for people who live with chronic pain,” Clark said in a statement.
He said that there are already 25,000 people in palliative care with terminal illnesses who don’t have time to wait for regulations to officially be put in place.
“People nearing the end of their lives should not have to worry about being arrested or imprisoned for trying to manage their pain,” he said.
However, the bill has received some backlash from the opposition National party for its potential to encourage smoking in public and for its lack of regulatory details.
National’s associate health spokesperson, Shane Reti, said that the bill “does not provide the details or framework for a permanent medical cannabis scheme” in a statement.
“This is lazy and dangerous – this Government is simply ticking the 100-day box that they were forced to by the Greens and it is permitting the smoking of drugs in our communities,” the statement read.
“We support medicinal cannabis but strongly oppose the smoking of loose leaf cannabis in public. Smoked loose leaf is not a medicine.”
Reti added that the new law is a way to decriminalize cannabis by stealth.
The bill paves the way for New Zealand companies to create medical cannabis products for both the local and international market by creating a licensing scheme for the research, growing and export of medical cannabis products.
It is welcome news for remote communities that are already cultivating cannabis illegally.
Hikurangi Cannabis, a cannabis company based in the remote town of Ruatoria in New Zealand’s North Island, became the first of a few commercial companies that were licensed to grow cannabis for research this year.
The company’s commercialization would create 120 local jobs in the town desperately in need of economic development, according to its managing director, Manu Caddie.
New Zealand joins at least 30 other countries worldwide who have legalized medical cannabis.