Government rules terminally ill people allowed to smoke cannabis

Terminally ill people will be temporarily permitted to smoke cannabis under the Government's new law - with New Zealand's medicinal cannabis industry expected to take off within 24 months.

When the scheme is up and running, patients with a prescription will be able to access medicinal cannabis at a pharmacy

However, there's no guarantee prohibitively expensive medicinal cannabis products will be subsidised by Pharmac.

Until the industry takes off, the Government will decriminalise the use of cannabis plants for those with less than 12 months to live, if they have a doctor's approval. 

"There will be people who can't wait. So as an interim measure the legislation will create a legal defence for possession and use of illicit cannabis for people who are expected by their doctors to be in their last year of life," Minister of Health David Clark said. 

"This does not make it legal for the terminally ill to use cannabis, but it means that they will not be criminalised for doing so."

It will still be an offence to supply cannabis to terminally ill people with less than 12 months to live, unless there is a valid prescription from a doctor.

The Government has not set an end-date for the legal defence.

National Party leader Bill English says the Bill needs a lot of work.

"There are some quite tricky issues. For instance, it will be legal to procure marijuana, but it doesn't look like it's legal to supply it, so there will be some issues to sort out."

There is only one pharmaceutical-grade cannabis product available in New Zealand - Sativex - and it's currently unsubsidised. The other available product is not pharmaceutical-grade.

The New Zealand Medical Association says the cost of Sativex is "a considerable barrier to its use", and the process for Ministerial approval is "overly time-consuming and bureaucratic".

There's no guarantee Pharmac will decide to subsidise medicinal cannabis - it operates independently of the Minister and the Ministry of Health. In 2015, funding for Sativex was declined "due to weak or no available evidence".

But while NZMA wants more research into medicinal cannabis, it's wary of cannabis being smoked.

"Given the possible harms associated with smoking cannabis and the availability of other modes of administration, it is difficult to justify a place for smoked cannabis as a medicine," it warned in November. 

This Bill will pass with support from the entire Government bloc, but it's not the only Bill on medicinal cannabis that politicians will have to think about.

A Member's Bill that would allow wider use will surface for debate early next year.

Originally in Green MP Julie-Anne Genter's name, it will allow anyone with a debilitating condition to legally smoke cannabis with a doctor's sign-off. It's expected to be a conscience vote.