2020 is shaping up to be an interesting year for cannabis reform in New Zealand. A medicinal cannabis regulatory regime will take effect from April and, in the September general election, New Zealanders will vote in a referendum on the legalisation of recreational cannabis. These developments result from the current coalition government’s health-based approach to drugs and global trends towards the deregulation of cannabis.
In December 2018, New Zealand amended the Misuse of Drugs Act to provide a defence for terminally ill people to possess and use cannabis; change the classification of cannabidiol products containing less than 2% THC so that they are no longer controlled drugs; and grant a regulation-making power allowing the government to set minimum quality standards for products containing controlled drugs. The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Regulations 2019 impose minimum quality standards for medicinal cannabis, ingredients and products as well as a licensing regime for activities involved in the production of medicinal cannabis products. The amended sections of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 provide a defence for terminally ill people who use or possess cannabis or cannabis utensils. The defence only applies to people diagnosed by a doctor or nurse as requiring palliative care.
From 1 April this year, a Medicinal Cannabis Agency (administered by the Ministry of Health) will be operational. Applicants can apply for a licence for one or more activities and further activities can be added as required — the activities are cultivation, nursery, research, possession for manufacture, and supply. Medicinal cannabis licences will be required in addition to licensing requirements from other regulatory regimes, such as licences to import and export controlled drugs, or to manufacture or sell medicines.
In September 2020, in the referendum New Zealander’s will be asked “Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill”? Yes or No. Under the Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill (Bill) it would be legal to grow and possess cannabis for personal use. There will be a minimum age of 20 to use or purchase a recreational cannabis product. There will be a ban on marketing and advertising cannabis and smoking cannabis in a public will be unlawful.
If New Zealand votes yes, what does this mean for workplaces? Can workplaces remain drug free? Should there be a cannabis policy? In anticipation of the Bill, employers will need to ensure that their policies are fit for purpose, up to date and relevant. Ideally, policies should set out the employer’s position on any drugs in the workplace. The real challenge for employers will be how to assess or police impairment from cannabis at work. It will be essential for employers to communicate their policies and practices if New Zealanders are permitted to use cannabis for recreational purposes.