By Tim Wu –

It is just over a year since the death of Helen Kelly, former President of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, and ardent campaigner for the legalisation of medical cannabis. Despite suffering from advanced cancer, her own application to take cannabis oil for pain relief was denied and she chose to use her position to draw attention to the issue.

A UMR poll from August 2017 shows 65% of New Zealanders support the general decriminalisation of cannabis for personal use, but even more – 78% – support the legalisation or decriminalisation of medicinal cannabis, particularly for pain relief. Today, 30 January 2018, the Labour government’s bill on the legalisation of medicinal cannabis is scheduled for its first reading in parliament.

Current Cannabis Policy:

Cannabis is a Class C drug prohibited in New Zealand by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. This status was a significant issue in the recent New Zealand General Election, with increasing calls from the public for decriminalisation. All the major political parties have expressed support for varying degrees of improved access to medicinal cannabis. While there was little outright support for legalisation for personal use, several major political parties called for public referendums and increased discussion of the possibility of legalising medicinal cannabis.

Background: Why change is desirable

Cannabis is often associated with other commonly known illicit drugs, such as methamphetamine and heroin. However, cannabis is unique because it causes significantly less harm than these other commonly known illicit drugs. It also causes less harm than several legal drugs, most notably alcohol. Overdosing on cannabis does not cause death, the strength of addiction to cannabis is very low, and 2013 Ministry of Health figures show use of cannabis declines with age.

By contrast, a criminal conviction from cannabis does cause major harm to those convicted. It could lead to deprivation of liberty from incarceration and imposes the stigma associated with criminal convictions. This stigma will permanently hinder a person’s education, travel and employment opportunities. This is arguably disproportionate to the harm caused by the drug itself.

The therapeutic benefits of medicinal cannabis

It is widely believed cannabis can be used to treat pain, loss of appetite, insomnia and other chronic conditions. A study involving 28 randomised trials found conclusive evidence that cannabis was an effective medicine for pain related to neuropathy, as well as cancer and multiple sclerosis. Their conclusion was that plant-derived cannabinoids relieved significant pain by 40%. Other studies, statistical and qualitative, have produced similar findings while the New Zealand Health Survey in 2013 found that 42% of cannabis users took the drug for medicinal purposes. The previous government had acknowledged this by allowing a few people to apply to the Minister of Health for exemptions to gain access to medicinal cannabis products, albeit via a process described as onerous.

Criminalisation of cannabis

The main intention of criminalising cannabis is ostensibly to protect public health. While the surveys show that cannabis is not as harmful as other drugs (such as methamphetamine and heroin), it can still have detrimental effects on users and the wider community. The New Zealand Health Survey in 2013 found that 36% of cannabis users had driven under the influence of cannabis in the previous year, that cannabis caused harm to 6% of users’ work or study, and that it caused harm to 8% of users’ mental health.

However, the criminalisation of cannabis is not without costs. A New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) report estimated the cost (public spending and opportunity cost) of criminalising cannabis to be around $300 million per year. At the same time, criminalising cannabis denies the government the ability to regulate the quality of cannabis and educate consumers of the risks of cannabis.

Criminalisation also lacks proven effectiveness. Countries which crack down on cannabis usage, such and New Zealand and the USA, have higher rates of cannabis use than countries with less strict policies. A World Health Organisation report, cited by the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, found that the USA had significantly higher rates of cannabis use than countries with less punitive systems, such as the Netherlands. It also found that only 7% of teenagers in the Netherlands had tried cannabis, compared to 27% in New Zealand.  Finally, one of the strongest arguments for decriminalisation is that cannabis use does not involve direct harm to other people so should not be controlled by the criminal jurisdiction.

Legalisation of medicinal cannabis

Legalising cannabis for medicinal purposes would provide medical professionals with an additional tool to help treat chronic illnesses and improve their patients’ quality of living. This has led to many overseas countries legalising cannabis for medicinal purposes, including some states in the US. Legalisation would create a commercial market for medicinal cannabis and provide pharmaceutical companies with incentives to conduct more research into cannabis, making increased treatment options available to patients as a result.

Inevitably, there are costs to this partial legalisation. There would need to be upfront spending to develop and enforce regulations around medicinal cannabis. There is also some ongoing debate over the efficacy of cannabis as a medicine. An additional issue with legalising cannabis for medicinal purposes is the slight potential for misuse. People could potentially fake symptoms in order to gain prescriptions for cannabis. The broad applications of medicinal cannabis might make it easier to fake symptoms than for medicines which apply to specific conditions.

Full legalisation of cannabis

Full legalisation of cannabis could drive economic growth in New Zealand, with gains from tax revenue from cannabis producers and jobs created by the cannabis industry. Analysis from the Marijuana Policy Group found that the cannabis industry in Colorado generated $2.39 billion in state output, and created 18,005 full-time jobs in 2015. While the industry in New Zealand is unlikely to get this big (Colorado alone has a greater population than New Zealand and also benefits from visitors from other US states), the case of Colorado shows legalisation has major economic potential.

Legalisation will also enable the government to regulate the cannabis industry. Regulation can be used to ensure users are only getting a relatively safe quality of cannabis, to educate users on managing the risks of cannabis, and to keep users away from black market suppliers who may expose them to more harmful drugs.

Legalisation will have costs. Regulations will need to be developed and enforced. There may also be risks to public welfare, with the NZIER report noting an increase in health costs related to adverse effects from cannabis in Colorado after legalisation. However, it is important to recall that the adverse health effects of cannabis are relatively minor compared to other legal and illegal drugs.

An additional concern with complete legalisation is that it may violate New Zealand’s obligations under various international drug treaties. However, countries such as Portugal, the Netherlands and Spain have found ways around this issue in their efforts to legalise.

Next steps:

  • Further research is needed on how legalisation can be achieved under New Zealand’s Treaty obligations
  • Policymakers should develop a framework for the regulation of medicinal and recreational cannabis
  • Aim to legalise medicinal and recreational cannabis nationally in the next five years, bringing us into line with comparator countries, and a number of the states in the USA.


This blog was authored by Tim Hu, a University of Auckland Law Student who won the University’s student-led Public Policy Club Policy Brief Competition 2017, sponsored by the Public Policy Institute. With assistance from Jennifer Curtin and Suzanne Woodward of the Public Policy Instutute.

The Public Policy Institute thanks Daniel Hirst for his expertise and editorial input prior to publication.


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