Terminally ill people who possess and use illicit cannabis will be protected from prosecution under legislation introduced today.
The government has unveiled its Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill to make medicinal cannabis more available to people with terminal illness or chronic pain.
Under the legislation, domestic cultivation and manufacture of medicinal cannabis products will be allowed.
An advisory committee will be established to review the rules for prescribing medicinal cannabis and to set minimum product quality standards. The government said this was to improve patient safety and boost confidence among doctors.
As an interim measure, the law would create a legal defence for possession and use of illicit cannabis for those in their last year of life.
However, the Drug Foundation said the changes did not go far enough.
Health Minister David Clark said making medicinal cannabis more readily available would help relieve the suffering of people who were dying in pain.
He said legislation would, in time, result in greater supply of quality medicinal cannabis, including products made in this country.
Based on the Australian experience, that was likely to take up to two years to happen.
"However, there will be people who can't wait. 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. 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 remain an offence to supply cannabis to such terminally ill people without a valid prescription from a doctor.
Changes were not being considered to the general possession law for cannabis under the scheme, however, Dr Clark said the law may be reviewed after the planned referendum on recreational cannabis use.
Dr Clark said there was increasing evidence to support the use of medicinal cannabis, including the World Health Organisation noting last week that cannabidiol, one of at least 113 active cannabinoids found in cannabis, "could have therapeutic value and did not carry any addiction risks".
Currently, a person must have a doctor's prescription, and for products containing THC [tetrahydrocannabinol], the doctor must apply to the Health Ministry for approval to prescribe. The exception was the drug Sativex for multiple sclerosis.
There are two combination THC and CBD [cannabidiol] products available, according to extra information supplied by Dr Clark. One was Sativex and the other a non-approved product.
If an alternative product was required, the doctor or a wholesaler or pharmacist must import it under the planned changes, and an import licence from the ministry would be needed.
No product was currently funded, and whether that changed would be up to the drug-buyer Pharmac.
When the new scheme was operational, patients with a prescription would be able to access medicinal cannabis at a pharmacy.
The committee to be established under the legislation would advise on prescribing, and whether pre-approval from the ministry should continue.
Dr Clark said 9000 people died from cancer each year but it was not known how many terminally ill people would want to use cannabis.
Bill should go further - Drug Foundation
The Drug Foundation said a legal protections in the bill does not go far enough and must be fixed.
It said while it welcomed the legislation, the two years it would take to be fully operational was too long.
"The bill simply does not go far enough to cover people with chronic pain and any terminal illness and needs to be fixed by the select committee," foundation executive director Ross Bell said.
In the meantime, all patients needing medicinal cannabis, and its suppliers, should be protected from prosecution, not just the terminally ill, it said.