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The history of medicinal cannabis in New Zealand: From the 1800s to 2020s

by | May 19, 2021

You could say that New Zealand is in the midst of a medicinal cannabis resurgence.

New legislation is paving the way for a thriving legal cannabis industry — plants and companies are popping up all over the country, from Northland to Marlborough.

More patients are getting medicinal cannabis prescriptions from the doctor.

And perhaps most significantly, attitudes towards cannabis use are changing and the plant’s therapeutic potential is widely accepted.

It’s a dramatic change from the past half-century where New Zealand waged its own version of the “War on Drugs”.

During this time, cannabis was cast as a dangerous and illicit narcotic and its medicinal properties were swept under a rug of fear and misinformation.

You don’t have to look too far back through New Zealand’s history to find a time when cannabis was routinely used — and even advertised — as a medicine.

As New Zealand enters a new era of medicinal cannabis, let’s take a look back at how far we’ve come in just a few decades.


The 1800s: A herbal remedy

Sister Suzanne Aubert’s herbal medicines
Sister Suzanne Aubert’s herbal medicines. Source: Te Papa

Prior to colonisation, the indigenous Māori of New Zealand used plant medicines as part of their traditional rongoā practices.

However, cannabis is not native to New Zealand and was brought here by the early settlers.

Despite being used for thousands of years, cannabis only arrived on our shores in the mid-1800s.

By the 1860s, cannabis cigarettes were being widely advertised in The New Zealand Herald as a “complete cure” for asthma and bronchitis.

cannabis cigarettes
Source: New Zealand Herald, August 1882

It’s believed that Mother Aubert, a Catholic nun and reportedly “New Zealand’s first cannabis grower”, used the plant in her line of herbal medicines that were sold commercially.

She’s also said to have brewed a cannabis tea to help ease the pain of her fellow nuns’ menstrual cramps.

In 1888, a Dunedin dentist advertised cannabis as “the latest most successful anaesthetic”.

The book, The New Zealand Family Herb Doctor, published in 1889, recommended cannabis as a treatment for asthma, neuralgia, and spasmodic coughing, among other ailments.

In the early 1900s, cannabis continued to be advertised as a cure for conditions such as corns and chilblains.

Chlorodyne, a drink and cough lozenge for children, also contained cannabis.


Cannabis was available in many different forms, including cigarettes tonics, tincture, balms, resin and more.

It was commonly recommended by health professionals and readily available from chemists and dispensaries around the country.


The early 1900s: Under the influence

During the first decades of the 20th Century, the sentiment towards plant medicines shifted.

New Zealand came under the influence of drug policies and media coverage in other countries, such as Australia, England and the United States.

Between 1912 and 1925, international conventions required the control of several drugs, including opium, heroin, cocaine, morphine, and finally cannabis.

The Dangerous Drugs Act of 1927 established cannabis as a “dangerous drug” at law.

However, cannabis could still be bought from a doctor or chemist with a medical prescription and recreational use was uncommon.


The mid-1900s: The rise of recreational use

Jazz, rock n roll, and popular culture played key roles in the rise of recreational cannabis use in New Zealand in the mid-1900s. Then the hippie revolution of the 1960s and 70s saw cannabis use skyrocket.

During this cultural shift, medicinal cannabis was still available, but illicit cannabis was everywhere.

New Zealand only ended the import of medical cannabis in 1955 at the request of the World Health Organisation.

Police in New Zealand started to crack down on cannabis use and, in 1965, set up vice squads to focus on drug crime.

Medicinal cannabis was available in some pharmacies right up until 1975 when the Misuse of Drugs Act was introduced.

The legislation labelled cannabis a “high risk” illicit drug and made possessing the plant a crime.

This coincided with the “War on Drugs” in the United States, which increased the enforcement and penalties for illegal drug use.

Cannabis was no longer seen as a medicine in New Zealand.

However, recreational use continued in the privacy of homes and social gatherings.


The 2000s: A changing world

The 2000s: A changing world

The scientific interest in medicinal cannabis ramped up following the discovery of the Endocannabinoid System in the 1990s.

More studies started looking at the clinical potential of cannabis.

Around the same time, underground groups and organisations, such as NORML, were actively campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis in New Zealand.

There were still concerns about the risks of recreational use, especially among younger people, but public sentiment was starting to shift once again.

Things were changing globally, too. In 1996, California became the first state in the United States to legalise medicinal cannabis and, within a decade, most other states had done the same.

Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalise recreational cannabis use in 2012.

With the growing interest in the scientific and medical communities, changing legislation around the world, and surging support for medicinal cannabis, New Zealand started to soften its stance.


The 2010s: The resurgence

In 2015, the Associate Health Minister approved the use of cannabis oil in the treatment of a teenager in an induced coma after his family campaigned for it.

It was the first time cannabis had been used legally in New Zealand in 40 years.

The following year, former Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly announced that she was using cannabis illegally to relieve pain associated with terminal lung cancer.

“Cannabis is the only thing that gives me relief, it lets me sleep all night,” Kelly said in an interview.

In 2017, medicinal cannabis was a major election issue in New Zealand. A poll commissioned by the Drug Foundation in July 2017 found that 59% of New Zealanders supported legalising cannabis for medical use.

Soon after being elected, the Labour- and Green-led government announced that it was committed to making medicinal cannabis available for people with a terminal illness or chronic pain.

The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill came into force in 2018, making several changes to the 1975 legislation

The Bill allowed terminally ill people to use illicit cannabis and set the stage for a scheme that would allow medicinal cannabis to be manufactured, imported and supplied in New Zealand with a license.

It also meant that cannabidiol (CBD), one of the main therapeutic compounds in cannabis, and CBD products would no longer be controlled drugs.

The Medicinal Cannabis Scheme was commenced in April 2020 with the purpose of improving access to quality medicinal cannabis products for patients.

The scheme, which is overseen by the Ministry of Health’s Medicinal Cannabis Agency, enables the commercial cultivation, manufacture and supply of cannabis for medicinal use with a license.

It also allows anyone to access medicinal cannabis with a prescription from a doctor (learn how here) and ensures products meet minimum quality standards.

In 2021, several companies, including Ora Pharm, have been granted medicinal cannabis licenses. The country is well on the way to creating a thriving medicinal cannabis industry.

It means that patients in New Zealand will be able to access cannabis-based medicines grown and produced on home soil.

But most importantly, patients will have greater control over their healthcare and better access to cannabis-based medicines than they’ve had for several decades.

Students can now study medicinal cannabis at university and cannabis research and development is being conducted by New Zealand tertiary institutes and companies.

Cannabis has been used medicinally throughout the world since the dawn of recorded history.

It seems that the next chapter of New Zealand’s cannabis story will see the ancient plant integrated into modern healthcare once again.

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