NZ medicinal cannabis advocates celebrate historic descheduling decision at United Nations


3 December 2020

Medicinal cannabis advocates in New Zealand are celebrating an historic win at the United Nations.

Today state representatives at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) took the bold step of removing cannabis from Schedule IV of a 1961 treaty governing international control of drugs, six decades after its inclusion. The close decision passed 27 to 25 and recognises the therapeutic value of this century-old medicinal plant and no longer considering it as “particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill effects.” 

The process began in 2009 and final decision based on the recommendation of an independent scientific assessment undertaken by some of the world’s leading experts, convened by the World Health Organisation in 2017-2018, where evidence and testimonials from all corners of the world were reviewed.

Manu Caddie is chair of the New Zealand Medical Cannabis Council, an industry association working to increase access to affordable quality medicinal cannabis, and attended the CND meeting in Vienna in December 2018. 

“At that time we were expecting the WHO recommendations on cannabis reform but these were delayed until early last year and it is has taken this long to get to the vote – but the wait was worth it!” said Mr Caddie.

Cannabis was originally placed into Schedule IV of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs without having been subject to any scientific assessment. Schedule IV for cannabis is a relic of the most extreme international drug laws inherited from 1950s.

The WHO has the sole responsibility in the treaty to issue these recommendations, today’s vote by governments gathered at the UN was required to pass them into international law. The removal from Schedule IV is, therefore, great news for millions of patients around the world and a historical victory of science over politics. While cannabis remains in Schedule I and subject to strict controls in cross-border supply, it is now recognised internationally as having real therapeutic value. 

“It was depressing to hear a number of states express disappointment in the vote and their intention to retain repressive enforcement measures relating to cannabis” said Mr Caddie. “Many of them use a range of violent tactics to suppress dissent domestically yet they express concern about the harm cannabis can cause. It is ridiculous they are not allowing science to guide public policy.”

In addition to the removal from Schedule IV, WHO unexpectedly proposed an ambitious plan to harmonise and embed flexibility into the treaty framework for the access and availability of cannabis medicines. WHO endeavoured to create space for governments to adjust their national policies to fit their needs.

Another recommendation on medicinal CBD did not receive approval, leaving the substance unscheduled, and theoretically outside of treaty controls.

These changes to international law will take effect after each government receives their official notification from the UN Secretary-General. In case a country contests the vote, it would only delay the entry into force of the decision to March 2021, which would only serve to reinforce the historic character of this set of decisions since the Single Convention was adopted in New-York 60 year earlier, to the day, on 30 March 1961.

“The decision does not have a significant effect on the new Medicinal Cannabis Scheme in New Zealand, but does provide optimism that change is possible at the international level, even if it takes a long time for small amounts of progress to be made” said Mr Caddie. 

New Zealand is not currently a member of the CND but Mr Caddie said the New Zealand Government has recently been a strong advocate for science-based decisions on cannabis at the United Nations and along with former Prime Minister Helen Clark as head of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, he hopes New Zealand will play an increasing role in shaping international rules, policy frameworks and standards for cannabis and other drugs.

Mr Caddie is also optimistic that while the recommendation on CBD was rejected, New Zealand will soon make domestic policy changes to remove CBD from the schedule of Prescription Only medicines to increase access for patients via pharmacy supply.



New Zealand organisations represented at UN meeting on medicinal cannabis law reform


NZ Medical Cannabis Council 

1 December 2020

The medical cannabis industry could be in for one of its biggest wins in decades if a United Nations vote next week implicitly acknowledges the medical value of the drug.

New Zealand medical cannabis patient groups and the industry association this week joined nearly 200 organisations from 53 countries to present a statement at the United Nations supporting change in the status of cannabis as a narcotic.  

During its 63rd session on Wednesday (2 December 2020), the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (UNCND) could – with a simple majority vote in a virtual meeting based in Vienna – accept a World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

The proposal in question – Recommendation 5.1 – is among six WHO cannabis-related recommendations on the agenda and believed to be the one with the highest likelihood of approval. It’s also arguably the most significant recommendation for patients and the industry as a whole.

The process of evaluating the six WHO cannabis recommendations could come to a conclusion next week – almost two years after they were first unveiled.

The statement supported by the New Zealand Medical Cannabis Council (NZMCC) is translated into six official languages and included in the agenda papers for the 63rd session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs taking place in Vienna this week.

Following the 41st meeting of the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD), WHO recommended in 2019, the rescheduling of cannabis and several cannabis-related substances. The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (UNCND) decided during its 62nd session in March 2019 to postpone the voting on the recommendations to provide Member States with more time. During its 63rd session, the Commission again decided to continue considerations of the recommendations and to vote during the 63rd reconvened session in December 2020.

NZMCC chair Manu Caddie attended the 61st session of UNCND in Vienna in December 2018 hoping to see cannabis de-scheduled and two years later is optimistic it could happen this time. 

“While the drug dependence experts from WHO have made clear recommendations based on the overwhelming scientific evidence, this is a political decision for member states and the decision could be delayed again” said Mr Caddie. 

“The meeting I attended got bogged down in name-calling between the USA, Syria and Iran instead of focusing on the issues of the agenda. Canada had just legalised and was being chastised by Russia and China who insist on cannabis being treated the same as heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which is crazy” said Mr Caddie. 

“The ‘war on drugs’ is a convenient excuse for regimes around the world to repress populations and communities – we see that most vividly in places like The Philippines and Malaysia where anyone caught with cannabis risks state-sanctioned execution.”  

Despite opposition expected from many countries, some UN members have expressed support, including the USA, European Union and Australia while others are changing their position, yesterday South Korea expressed support for change.

Excerpts from the joint statement say:

“Cannabis was entered into the treaty system based upon misinformation and an absence of a rigorous scientific assessment and now that we have had a critical review of cannabis [via the WHO expert committee] the system has now been made aware of the vast medical value and minimal risk of this age-old medicine; this truth compels action.” 

“Cannabis remains “indispensable for the relief of pain and suffering and adequate provision must be made to ensure the availability of narcotic drugs for such purposes” just as the Single Convention described back in 1961.” 

“Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that those countries most firmly opposed to WHO recommendations are undergoing ‘opioid overdose crises’ that research into the cannabinoid-opioid interaction could help. Ironically, the countries that oppose the evidence-based outcome of WHO have shortages in medications to treat some of the very conditions cannabis has been proven useful for.”

The NZ Medical Cannabis Council is the industry association with over 30 companies involved in different parts of the rapidly developing sector.


Medicinal Cannabis will remain inaccessible without subsidies or changes to regulations

Chairperson Manu Caddie said the NZ Medical Cannabis Council is pleased the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recognises that medicinal cannabis products in New Zealand are too expensive and still inaccessible for most patients.

“While commercial licenses have only been issued in the past few months, the reality is that growing a plant for pharmaceuticals will always be an expensive process and that means products will be more expensive than synthetic alternatives.”

“The industry supports the Good Manufacturing Standard requirement in the regulations but this will mean New Zealand made products are always going to be expensive. We can import cheaper products from places like South America and South Africa but they can have other issues that are likely to reduce prescriber and patient trust in the quality.” 

“An alternative is requiring any cannabinoid ingredients to meet GMP rather than the whole manufacturing process. Australia uses this approach and it is driving costs down, so that could be worth looking at if the government wants to reduce product costs.” 

Mr Caddie has visited medicinal cannabis producers in South America, Asia, Europe and North Ameria – he is confident New Zealand made the right decision with setting GMP as the quality standard for products made and prescribed here. 

“Places like Germany have the vast majority of cannabis prescriptions fully subsidised by statutory health insurers. In New Zealand we have Pharmac, ACC and WINZ that could subsidise the cost to bring it down for the majority of patients who simply cannot afford hundreds of dollars a month, or in some cases every couple of weeks, to pay for medicinal cannabis. Pharmac usually only looks at a product if it is registered, which requires substantial clinical evidence costing millions over many years. ACC and WINZ have covered a only a handful of prescriptions for clients that meet their strict criteria and have been sporadic in the eligibility for individual patients.”

“None of these options seem like a sustainable solution. While providing a special subsidy for medicinal cannabis products could be controversial, the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme has already established these medicines as a special category, so it does not need to undermine the Pharmac system if medicinal cannabis is treated differently to other medicines, particularly now the referendum has prevented full legalisation that could have helped thousands of patients who cannot afford pharmaceutical grade cannabis products.”  

The NZ Medical Cannabis Council is the industry association with over 30 companies involved in different parts of the rapidly developing sector.

News, Vacancies

NZMCC GM appointed

The NZ Medical Cannabis Council has appointed Sally King, an experienced advocate and communications specialist, as our General Manager. Sally will support the Council as we establish an industry body that is inclusive, focused and effective.

Sally brings a wealth of experience in public policy, leadership in member-based organisations and communication skills to ensure NZ Medical Cannabis Council members and associate members are well informed and able to participate in the organisation.

To contact Sally, please complete the form below.