Cannabis in New Zealand

A dried flowered bud of the Cannabis sativa plant.

Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in New Zealand. In the population of more than 4 million, 13.4% of those between the ages of 16–64 use cannabis. This ranks as the ninth highest cannabis consumption level in the world.[1] The use of cannabis in New Zealand is governed by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, which makes unauthorised possession of any amount of cannabis illegal. However, there are some political efforts seeking to remove penalties on its use for those over 18 years of age.


Among Britain's colonies, New Zealand was one of the few areas where the United Kingdom did not encourage extensive industrial hemp production, as the native harakeke plant could instead be used for fibre.[2]

In 1927, New Zealand passed the Dangerous Drugs Act, whose schedule listed among controlled drugs: "Indian hemp – that is, the dried flowering or fruiting tops of the pistillate plant known as Cannabis sativa."[3] Cannabis continued to be used as a prescription medication. In accordance with its international obligations under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, New Zealand passed the Narcotics Act in 1965, which banned a number of drugs, including cannabis.[4]

Recreational cannabis use was rare in New Zealand for most of the 20th century, with one scholar noting 1967 as a watershed point where demand for cannabis boomed among "musicians and university students."[4]


Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in New Zealand and the third most widely used recreational drug after alcohol and nicotine.[5] The usage by those aged between 16–64 is 13.4%, the ninth highest level of consumption in the world,[1] and 15.1% of those who smoked cannabis used it ten times or more per month.[5] According to a UN study usage by 15- to 45-year-olds in 2003 was about 20% and this dropped to 17.9% in 2010.[6]

A 25-year longitudinal study of "1000 Christchurch born young people between the ages of 15 – 25"[7] concluded that "regular or heavy cannabis use was associated with an increased risk of using other illicit drugs, abusing or becoming dependent upon other illicit drugs, and using a wider variety of other illicit drugs".[8] The lead author of the study, Professor David Fergusson, stated:

"Our research shows the regular use of cannabis increases the risks that young people will try other illicit drugs. What’s not clear are the underlying processes that lead to this association. Understanding these processes is critical to how we view cannabis."
"If the association arises because using cannabis increases contact with illegal drug markets, this is a ground for the decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis. If, however, the association arises because using cannabis encourages young people to experiment with other illicit drugs the results could be seen as supporting the prohibition of cannabis use."[7]


Cannabis use is controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. Possession of any amount of cannabis is illegal. The maximum penalty for possession of cannabis is imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months or a $500 fine,[9] although section 7(2) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 contains a rebuttable presumption against imprisonment in respect of possession offences in respect of Class C controlled drugs, which include cannabis. Cultivation of cannabis carries a maximum penalty of 7 years imprisonment.[10] Selling cannabis, offering to sell or supplying cannabis to a person under the age of 18 years carries a maximum penalty of 8 years imprisonment.[11] Cannabis oil or hashish are defined as a class B[12] drugs, and those convicted of manufacturing or supplying face a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment.[11] Possession of a class B controlled drugs carries a maximum sentence of up to 3 months imprisonment or a fine not exceeding $500.

Anyone caught in possession of at least 28 grams of cannabis or 100 cannabis joints is presumed to be a supplier, unless the defendant can prove they are not.[13][14] However, in R v Hansen [2007], a majority of the Supreme Court held that this presumption was inconsistent with section 25(c) of the Bill of Rights Act, which affirms the right of those charged with an offence to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. They also held that it was not a justified limitation under section 5 of that Act.[15] Cannabis is a Class C drug, of which the penalty for dealing can result in a maximum prison sentence of 8 years under the Act. There have been many public campaigns to decriminalise Cannabis but so far none have succeeded. It is generally accepted that the usage rate is high and possession in small quantities may not often be prosecuted. In some cases first offences may result in a formal warning and confiscation by police.

The Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party has stood candidates since the 1996 general election.[16] They won 1.66% of the party vote in that election, the largest proportion in its history.[17][18] The party has never won an electorate seat, without which they must receive at least 5% of the party vote to be represented in parliament.[16][18][19]

In 2006, Green Party MP Metiria Turei's Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill was drawn from the member's ballot.[20] The purpose of the bill was to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act so that cannabis could be used for medicinal purposes,[21] and to permit the cultivation and possession of a small amount of Cannabis by registered medical users or a designated agent.[22] The bill received a conscience vote at its first reading in July 2009, and was defeated 84–34.[23] All MPs in the ruling National Party voted against the bill, as did the sole members from United Future and Jim Anderton's Progressive Party; while all members from the Green Party and ACT voted in favour of the bill (other than ACT MP Roger Douglas, who did not vote). The vote was split from MPs in the opposition Labour Party and the Māori Party.[23]

In March 2016, New Zealand's Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne has said that he would support policy change regarding medical marijuana if it is proven to be effective in treating illnesses. This, along with the seasonal shortage of cannabis that has been intensified by multiple police raids on cannabis crops,[24] has put New Zealand's cannabis policies in the political spotlight locally. There have been talks of policy change among government officials, and multiple MPs do support policy change, but as of yet there have been no actual plans made to change New Zealand's laws around cannabis.[25] NORML NZ is currently the predominant organization pushing for a change, but support from a large proportion of the public exists. A poll carried out by the research company UMR surveyed 1750 New Zealanders, and the results concluded that 71% of the people surveyed supported the idea of a medicinal marijuana regime in New Zealand.[26]


At least four people have died while policing cannabis in New Zealand. Detective Travis Hughes and Christopher Scott were killed when their Cessna 172 crashed in Central Otago while on cannabis reconnaissance.[27][28] Detective Tony Harrod died falling from a helicopter sling recovering plants in Taranaki.[29][30]

During the 2009 Napier shootings, Jan Molenaar fired on three police officers executing a cannabis search warrant, killing Senior Constable Len Snee. People who knew Molenaar described a long-standing, tense relationship between him and the police surrounding the legality of his cannabis involvement, saying, 'Molenaar believed his home was being watched and told friends he was determined to "go out in blaze of glory" if police came to arrest him',[31] and, 'police knew who Molenaar was and knew what he would do in a situation'.[32]

A notable case involving cannabis growing equipment was the prosecution of the owner and general manager of the Switched on Gardener stores following a series of arrests and raids in 2010.[33]

Total Police apprehensions for cannabis offences, 2010–14[34]
Offence category Year ending 31 December
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Import or export cannabis 16 17 13 40 11
Deal or traffic cannabis 2,031 2,094 3,015 1,499 1,602
Manufacture or cultivate cannabis 2,425 2,046 2,058 1,553 1,442
Possess and/or use cannabis 9,282 8,086 7,398 5,525 5,371
Other cannabis offences 4,360 3,814 3,298 2,160 2,061
Total cannabis offences 18,114 16,057 15,782 10,777 10,487
Total illicit drug offences 22,929 20,742 20,682 15,553 16,029
% cannabis 79.00 77.41 76.31 69.29 65.43

Medicinal use

Approved cannabis-based pharmaceuticals can be prescribed by a specialist doctor, but requires patients to meet strict criteria. As of April 2016, only Sativex is approved for use in New Zealand; it is not subsidised, so patients must pay the full retail cost.[35] Unapproved cannabis-based pharmaceuticals (e.g. Cesamet, Marinol) and non-pharmaceutical cannabis products can be approved on case-by-case basis by the Minister of Health. On 9 June 2015, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne approved the one-off use of Elixinol, a cannabidiol (CBD) product from the United States for a coma patient.,[36] and on 4 April 2016, he approved the one-off use of Aceso Calm Spray, a non-pharmaceutical grade CBD cannabis-based product for a patient with a severe case of Tourette's Syndrome.[37] These two cases are the only ones to this date to have been approved by the Health Minister.[38]

The New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA) supports having evidence-based, peer-reviewed studies of medical cannabis.[39] In 2010 the New Zealand Law Commission made a recommendation to allow for its medical use.[40] The NZMA, which made submissions on the issues paper, supports the stance put forward by the Law Commission.[6] GreenCross New Zealand was the first legally registered support group fighting for patient rights to access cannabis as medicine.

See also


  1. 1 2 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2006). World Drug Report 2006 (PDF). 2. United Nations Publication. ISBN 92-1-148215-1.
  2. Chris Duvall (15 November 2014). Cannabis. Reaktion Books. pp. 67–. ISBN 978-1-78023-386-4.
  4. 1 2 Greg Newbold (3 June 2016). Crime, Law and Justice in New Zealand. Routledge. pp. 153–. ISBN 978-1-317-27561-9.
  5. 1 2 Ministerial Committee on Drug Policy. (2007). National Drug Policy 2007–2012 (PDF). Wellington: Ministry of Health. ISBN 978-0-478-30751-1. Retrieved 7 December 2008.
  6. 1 2 "Doctors backing medical use of cannabis". Sunday Star Times. 13 June 2010.
  7. 1 2 "Illicit drug use starts with cannabis". Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Otago. 14 March 2006. Retrieved 6 December 2008.
  8. Fergusson, David; Joseph M. Boden; L. John Horwood (April 2006). "Cannabis use and other illicit drug use: Testing the cannabis gateway hypothesis". Addiction. 101 (4): 556–569. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2005.01322.x. PMID 16548935.
  9. Section 7(2)(b) Misuse of Drugs Act 1975
  10. "Possession and use of controlled drugs". Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 No 116 (as at 08 September 2011), Public Act. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Parliamentary Counsel Office/Te Tari Tohutohu Pāremata. 8 September 2011. Section 7(2). Retrieved 26 February 2012.
  11. 1 2 Section 6(2)(b) Misuse of Drugs Act 1975
  12. Second Schedule Part 1 Misuse of Drugs Act 1975
  13. "Dealing with controlled drugs". Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 No 116 (as at 08 September 2011), Public Act. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Parliamentary Counsel Office/Te Tari Tohutohu Pāremata. 8 September 2011. Section 6(6). Retrieved 26 February 2012.
  14. "Schedule 5: Amount, level, or quantity at and over which controlled drugs are presumed to be for supply". Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 No 116 (as at 08 September 2011), Public Act. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Parliamentary Counsel Office/Te Tari Tohutohu Pāremata. 8 September 2011. Part 1. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
  15. "Chapter 10" (PDF). NZLC IP16 Controlling and regulating drugs (PDF). Wellington, New Zealand: Law Commission. 11 February 2010. p. 202. ISBN 978-1-877316-89-0. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
  16. 1 2 "MMP Elections". Christchurch, New Zealand: Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party. 28 November 2011. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  17. "Summary of overall results" (PDF). 1996 General Election – Official Results and Statistics. Wellington, New Zealand: Electoral Commission. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  18. 1 2 "New Zealand Election Results". Wellington, New Zealand: Electoral Commission. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  19. "Sainte-Laguë allocation formula". Elections New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Electoral Commission. Retrieved 13 May 2012.
  20. "Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill". New Zealand Parliament. Retrieved 8 December 2009.
  21. "Explanatory note". Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill 58-1 (2006), Members Bill. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Parliamentary Counsel Office/Te Tari Tohutohu Pāremata. 2006. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
  22. "Purpose". Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill 58-1 (2006), Members Bill. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Parliamentary Counsel Office/Te Tari Tohutohu Pāremata. 2006. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
  23. 1 2 "Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill — First Reading". Hansard. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand House of Representatives. 655: 4850. 1 July 2009. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
  24. "Police recover 9000 cannabis plants in Nelson-Marlborough aerial operation". 2016-03-07. Retrieved 2016-11-10.
  25. "Medicinal marijuana: If it's effective Peter Dunne will back it | 1 NEWS NOW". TVNZ. 2016-10-23. Retrieved 2016-11-10.
  26. "Most NZers support medical marijuana - poll | Radio New Zealand News". Retrieved 2016-11-10.
  27. "Plane crash inquest winds up". TVNZ. 31 March 2006. Retrieved 18 October 2008.
  28. "Investigation 05-002". Transport Accident Investigation Commission. Retrieved 13 April 2009.
  29. "Fall kills policeman". Otago Daily Times. 18 December 1990. p. 2.
  30. "Investigation 90-012T". Transport Accident Investigation Commission. Retrieved 13 April 2009.
  31. "Cop killer's last words". New Zealand Herald. 31 March 2010. Retrieved 22 December 2010.
  32. "Napier siege inquest: Latest updates". New Zealand Herald. 1 April 2010. Retrieved 22 December 2010.
  33. "Switched on Gardener turns off to turning on". The New Zealand Herald. 31 January 2013. Retrieved 14 February 2013.
  34. "Annual Apprehensions for the latest Calendar Years (ANZSOC) -- NZ.Stat". Statistics New Zealand. Retrieved 8 April 2016.
  35. "New Zealand Consumer Medical Information – Sativex, Oral spray" (PDF). New Zealand Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Authority. Retrieved 3 November 2011.
  36. Jo Moir (2015-06-09). "Medicinal cannabis application approved for teenager in coma |". Retrieved 2016-11-10.
  37. Moir, Jo (4 April 2016). "Peter Dunne approves cannabis product for Tourette's Syndrome patient". Retrieved 7 April 2016.
  38. Moir, Jo (5 April 2016). "Labour Party open to decriminalising medicinal cannabis". Retrieved 8 April 2016.
  39. "Cannabis". New Zealand Medical Association. 9 February 2001. Retrieved 12 July 2010.
  40. Controlling and regulating drugs (PDF). Issues paper 16. New Zealand Law Commission. 2010. p. 21. ISBN 978-1-877316-89-0.

Further reading

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