Cannabis and the law
Cannabis is one of the most widely available illicit drugs in New Zealand. It comes from the Cannabis sativa plant and contains the active ingredient THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). The more THC in a plant, the stronger its effects when used as a drug.
Cannabis is also known as grass, pot, weed, mull, chronic, dak, hash, smoke, buds, skunk, cabbage.
What does cannabis look like?
Cannabis comes in three main forms: marijuana, hashish and hash oil. All of these look very different from each other.
- Marijuana is the most common form. It consists of dried leaves and flowers.
- Hashish (hash) is small blocks of dried resin, ranging in colour from light brown to nearly black. THC levels in hashish are higher than marijuana.
- Hash oil is a thick golden brown to black liquid that is extracted from hashish. Hash oil also has higher levels of THC than marijuana.
What Police are doing about cannabis
Police are committed to reducing the demand for cannabis and disrupting the supply chain. Each year Police target the people who grow and supply cannabis, through aerial searches throughout New Zealand. Crops are seized and destroyed. Police can also seize assets and cash that have been obtained through the supply of cannabis.
Cannabis laws and penalties
Penalties associated with cannabis range from a $500 fine for possession to a 14 year jail term for its supply or manufacture.
Cultivation of cannabis, including to sow or plant it, can, on indictment, result in a 7 year jail term or an immediate 2 years jail term and/or $2,000 fine (depending on the amount).
To find out more about penalties associated with cannabis see Illicit drugs.
Youth and cannabis
If a young person under 17 years of age is reported for smoking or possessing cannabis they could be arrested.
If it is a first offence and the amount of cannabis in their possession does not constitute enough for supply they will be dealt with by the Police Youth Aid section using a number of options. These include:
- a warning
- alternative action (diversion)
- family group conference techniques
- Youth Court (in serious cases).
If they are 17 or older it is likely that they will get diversion (especially if it is their first offence). This means they will avoid the court process and the likelihood of a conviction, often in return for a donation and/or attending an approved counselling course.
To find out more about young people and the court process visit the Ministry of Justice Youth Court web page.
If you or someone you know is having problems with cannabis, other drugs or alcohol, it is important to know there are people who can help. To find out more visit the page Getting help.
To find out more about cannabis, its risks and its effects visit the New Zealand Drug Foundation website.
Cannabis in New Zealand – Laws, Use, and History
It’s currently illegal to use cannabis in New Zealand. However, the forthcoming cannabis referendum may change this. Under the current coalition government, the medicinal cannabis laws have already been altered, making it easier for patients to access cannabis products; and another law may soon be changed, decriminalising recreational cannabis use.
- CBD Products
- Recreational cannabis
- Medicinal cannabis
Cannabis laws in New Zealand
Can you possess and use cannabis in New Zealand?
At present, it’s illegal to possess or use any controlled drugs in New Zealand, including cannabis, as stated in the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1975. Cannabis is listed as a Class B drug, which means that it’s regarded as presenting a “high risk of harm”. This means that, unlike a Class C drug, the Judge in court must impose a custodial sentence.
If caught using or possessing cannabis, the individual may be given a three-month prison sentence, a fine not exceeding $500, or both. In reality, the police force often turn a blind eye to its use, especially in small amounts.
The prison sentence may be waived if the individual can prove that they took possession of the cannabis to prevent someone else from committing an offence with it, or that they took it in order to pass it on to someone who was lawfully entitled to have it.
It looked like the law was set to change in New Zealand. In 2017, the government stated that they would be holding a cannabis referendum in 2020, to gather information about the public’s view on decriminalising or even legalising recreational cannabis use.
Sandra Murray, the campaign manager for #makeitlegal, commented in The Guardian, “We know from polls over a number of years that a majority of New Zealanders support cannabis law reform”.
However, the referendum was overshadowed by 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic, and polls indicated that public support of legalising cannabis was on the wane.
Andrew Geddis, a public law professor (University of Otago) commented: “Those wanting to see a yes vote had to convince a reasonable number of people that their previous prohibitionist views were mistaken. At the moment, it doesn’t look like they have been able to do so and time really is running out.”
It’s unclear whether Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s admission about using cannabis in the past will work for or against her. Unfortunately, the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, was defeated with a 50.7% majority.
Can you sell cannabis in New Zealand?
Selling and supplying cannabis is also illegal in New Zealand. In the Misuse of Drugs Act, it’s not differentiated from possessing or using; which means the same penalties apply.
However, cannabis trafficking, or large-scale selling or supply, is regarded as a far more serious offence. If caught exporting or importing the drug, the offender may receive up to seven years in prison.
Can you grow cannabis in New Zealand?
It’s illegal to cultivate ‘prohibited plants’ in New Zealand. If caught doing so, the offender could receive a prison sentence of up to seven years.
Despite this, cannabis is still grown in the country. The leading reasons for growing cannabis were for personal use and for sharing with others. Some grow it for medicinal reasons, as it’s currently difficult to obtain medicinal cannabis products on prescription. A researcher from Massey University found that 16% of New Zealand’s cannabis growers had come into contact with the police.
Is CBD legal in New Zealand?
Prior to 2018, CBD was available on prescription only. However, at the end of 2018, an amendment was passed, which altered its legal status. Now, CBD is no longer listed as a controlled drug, and can be purchased and used with a prescription, for up to three months. However, the levels of THC must not “exceed 2% of the total CBD THC and psychoactive related substances content in the product”.
Can cannabis seeds be sent to New Zealand?
At present, it’s still illegal to send cannabis seeds into New Zealand via the post. 19,000 seeds were seized by border control officials in 2018 alone.
Medicinal cannabis in New Zealand
Prior to the end of 2018, medicinal cannabis products were available in New Zealand; but access to them was limited. Due to the country having no domestic manufacturing facilities, the products (like Sativex) were costly and hard to obtain. Some unapproved products such as Cesamet or Marinol could be approved on a case-by-case basis, but this hardly ever occurred.
- Better access for terminally ill patients (who can now obtain cannabis without needing a prescription).
- The removal of CBD from the list of controlled substances – making it freely available for patients who need it.
- New regulation-making power, establishing quality standards for medicinal cannabis products manufactured or imported into the country.
Health Minister David Clarke commented: “People nearing the end of their lives should not have to worry about being arrested or imprisoned for trying to manage their pain. This is compassionate and caring legislation that will make a real difference to people.”
Manu Caddie, CEO of Hikurangi Cannabis Company, was asked by Prohibition Partners about his thoughts on the future of the medicinal cannabis industry. He commented: “We expect 3-4 serious medicinal cannabis companies to be established and licenced in New Zealand over the next two years. We also expect some of the Canadian companies to partner with New Zealand companies.”
In 2019, the Ministry of Health approved new legislation, which was designed to make medicinal cannabis more accessible; through both domestic production and the relaxing of stringent prescription regulations.
The medicinal cannabis minimum quality standard, was also introduced to ensure the consistency, and quality of the products available.
A year later, the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme was finally put into action. It’s anticipated that this will improve availability for patients, and boost the medicinal cannabis industry as a whole.
The original scheme provided a transitional period for medicinal cannabis products imported into New Zealand before 1 April, 2020, to continue to be supplied until 1 October, 2020. An extension has been granted enabling medicinal products to be supplied without a product assessment until 30 September, 2021.
In October, 2021, New Zealand is set to host the prestigious MedCan medicinal cannabis summit. MedCan representatives commented: “the event has set out to build a solid foundation of scientific understanding for the advancement of the medicinal cannabis industry”
Zahra Champion, Executive Director, of BioTechNZ expresses their “goal is to ensure all MedCan attendees come away with a comprehensive understanding about all that lies ahead and how we can best maximise this exciting sector’s success”. She additionally remarks that “with over $100 million invested so far in New Zealand’s medicinal cannabis industry, 2021 is our year to shine”.
Industrial hemp in New Zealand
Hemp can be legally grown in New Zealand, as long as the farmer has a licence. This can be obtained from the government.
Hemp is listed as a controlled drug in the Misuse of Drugs Act, but its cultivation is permitted, as long as THC levels are ‘generally’ below 0.35%. However, the law clearly states that the hemp must not be advertised for “psychoactive” purposes or supplied to unauthorised persons. Only certain varieties can be grown, which are determined by the Director-General of Health.
A general licence to grow hemp lasts one year and costs $511.11. An additional research and breeding licence can also be obtained, which costs a further $153.33.
Industrial hemp cultivation is becoming more popular in the country. In 2018, the first Hemp Summit was held in Wellington, where visitors were able to learn more about the industry.
Political parties and cannabis
New Zealand’s coalition government (the Labour Party, Green Party and New Zealand First) passed a law in December 2018, which allowed terminally ill patients to use cannabis. They also stated that they would be holding a referendum in the future, to determine whether or not recreational cannabis use should be decriminalised. Their new laws also meant that medicinal cannabis products could be manufactured domestically, which would make them more accessible to patients.
Chloe Swarbrick, an MP for the Green Party, backed the plans, saying that it showed commitment to addressing the problem of drug addiction, rather than labelling it as a criminal activity.
However, not everyone supports the Labour Party’s views. Some parties, like the New Zealand National Party (the government’s centre-right opposition) are against the new law. Dr Shane Reti, the party’s health spokesman, referred to it as “lazy and dangerous”, as it will encourage people to start smoking it in public.
Simon Bridges (also the National Party) referred to the referendum as a ‘cynical’ move; and accused the government of trying to distract voters from other key issues. He also expressed concerns about normalising cannabis use.
Good to know
If you are travelling to New Zealand (or currently live there), you may be interested to know the following:
Medicinal Cannabis Agency – Cultivation
If you hold a medicinal cannabis licence with a ‘cultivation’ activity you may import cannabis seeds for the purposes of cultivation from a country that allows export. You will also need to apply for a controlled drug import licence for each consignment of seed.
The imported seeds must also meet the specifications of MPI Import Health Standard IHS 155.02.05.
Cannabis plants or tissue may not be imported for cultivation at this time due to biosecurity restrictions.
Illicit seeds and plants
If you hold a medicinal cannabis licence with a ‘cultivation’ activity you may bring varieties of cannabis already established in New Zealand into the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme by making a declaration and paying the fee of $747.50 (including GST).
You may declare up to 20 plants AND 50 seeds on a single declaration. There is no limit to the number of declarations that can be made, provided the fee is paid for each declaration.
Supplying seeds or plant material to another cultivator or manufacturer
A licence with a ‘cultivation’ activity allows you to supply cannabis seeds (act as a seed merchant) or clones for cultivation by another licence holder if their licence also allows a ‘cultivation’ activity.
You may also supply seeds or plant material to another licence holder for the manufacture of medicinal cannabis products if their licence allows a ‘possess for manufacture’ activity. You will need to retain evidence of the agreement between you and the manufacturer.
Cultivating cannabis and manufacturing medicinal cannabis products
If you wish to both cultivate cannabis and manufacture a medicinal cannabis product, you will need to apply for both the ‘cultivation’ and ‘possess for manufacture’ activities.
Undertaking research involving cultivation
A licence with a ‘cultivation’ activity allows you to cultivate cannabis for breeding research.
However, the ‘cultivation’ activity does not allow you to supply cannabis to a person who is a research subject in a clinical trial. This is covered by the research activity.