5 Facts You Need To Know About Medicinal Cannabis In New Zealand

Cannabis use has often come with a stigma, as there are many negative stereotypes that people associate with cannabis and its use. However, over the past decade, it's become more mainstream and it is now legal for New Zealanders to be prescribed medicinal cannabis by their GP. We hope this blog helps demystify some of the stigmas as well as answer any questions you have about the use of medicinal cannabis use in NZ.

1. Medicinal cannabis is now legal in New Zealand

In September 2023 the government changed the regulations around prescribing medicinal cannabis. They also increased the plant varieties that could be grown and exported which will ultimately make prescriptions cheaper for consumers. Currently, medicinal cannabis prescriptions are still quite expensive (as they are not Pharmac funded), which makes it hard for some people to obtain them.

The current legislation allows GPs to prescribe medicinal cannabis in a variety of ways; an oral liquid, sublingual drops, dried plant for vaporisers or teas or as a spray. All of the current products that can be legally prescribed (found here) are listed on the Ministry of Health website, they have been tested and found to meet the medicinal cannabis minimum quality standards and are only allowed to be prescribed for no more than a three-month supply.

2. Cannabis helps with chronic conditions

The prescribing parameters for medicinal cannabis are quite broad as it is up to the discretion of the GP and the health concerns they are assessing. The most common prescriptions are for people who are suffering from:

  • Chronic pain that can stem from cancer,  arthritis, nerve pain and other conditions that cause pain 
  • Chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and Crohn's disease.
  • Sleep and mood health issues 
  • Inflammation issues
The list of conditions that medicinal cannabis can help with is extensive, and it is often prescribed after exhausting other pain medication options. However, it is important to note that medicinal cannabis is not considered a first-line option for conditions - meaning health professionals must try other treatments alongside medicinal cannabis to prescribe it legally.

People report that using medicinal cannabis has helped with supporting pain levels so they can have a better quality of life. With chronic pain and chronic conditions, there is sometimes very little people can do to better their health situation.
Anything chronic usually means the condition or symptoms are long-term and consistent and for some, it may be something they have to live with forever. This reality can be overwhelming, so anything that can help support people to feel better and more able to participate in society is a good thing.

3. It works well with the cannabinoid receptors that are found throughout our bodies

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is made up of a vast network of chemical signals and cellular receptors that are found throughout your body. In order to stimulate these receptors your body produces molecules that are called endocannabinoids.

Endocannabinoids are very similar in structure to the molecules that occur within the cannabis plant. This is why the use of cannabis to support the body has been successfully utilised for over 5,000 years by different cultures globally.

You have cannabinoid receptors in your brain (called CB1 receptors) and they outnumber many of the other receptors housed in your brain. The role of CB1 receptors is to basically control the activity and levels of your other neurotransmitters. They are able to regulate your hunger, temperature and alertness levels through this feedback system.

You also have another cannabinoid receptor (CB2) which is found within your immune tissues and helps your immune system to function, as well as supporting immune modulation (balancing) and reducing inflammation. CB2 receptors are very popular with drug development as activation of this receptor does not cause the high that can occur with the stimulation of CB1 receptor.

In simple terms, the ECS helps to modulate the way your brain, immune and endocrine (hormone) systems work. It also helps with our response to stress - which is why it is often used to support mood, sleep and pain issues.

4. Legal use of cannabis in NZ allows people to obtain safe and tested cannabis products  

Currently, cannabis use in New Zealand is already widespread, with 11-15% of adults reporting they have used it within the past 12 months. Forty per cent of those people were using cannabis to self-medicate for chronic pain or conditions as opposed to seeking professional health guidance for their condition. 

By making medicinal cannabis legal the hope is that people using cannabis illegally for their health conditions would be able to gain a legal prescription and health support from a qualified health professional. The products that can be prescribed have gone through testing and have to meet a minimum quality test in order to prove people are getting medicinal-strength cannabis that has been grown and processed safely.

5. Medicinal cannabis isn’t for everyone

Medicinal cannabis use is constantly being studied for its efficacy in pain and chronic conditions. However, there are a few groups of people this treatment will not be suitable for:

  • Pregnant and breastfeeding people
  • People who have unstable cardiovascular or cardiopulmonary systems
  • People with severe mental health issues (particularly schizophrenia)

Some more cautions:

Cannabinoids are primarily cleared via our hepatic system (our detoxification pathways) so people with comprised livers are also cautioned about using this product as it can place extra stress on their system.

People who are elderly or prone to falls should be cautious with their use as cannabinoids can cause dizziness and feelings of sedation.

Children under 18 years old due to the effect it may have on developing brains.

People who work in transport or with heavy machinery should also be very cautious with their use.

Medicinal cannabis may also interact with medication such as some anti-depressants and oral contraceptives so discussing all these concerns with your health professional is advised before starting this medication.

Are there other plants that also work with our ECS?

Yes! Plants are complex with a multitude of components, including chemical constituents, vitamins and minerals. The way they work is still being studied and not fully understood, but there is information that shows other plants also interact and stimulate our ECS. 

They are:
  • Cacao 
  • Echinacea
  • Kava
  • Black pepper
  • Hops
  • Tea

Why isn't cannabis prescribed more in NZ?

There is still widespread stigma around asking for medicinal cannabis. Some people feel embarrassed or believe their GPs are too conservative, which stops them from asking for a prescription. This means that some people are still obtaining cannabis through illegal methods rather than consulting their GP or health professional.

Given its long-held stigma, it’s true that some GPs seem to be hesitant in prescribing medicinal cannabis which is reducing its legal availability and also affecting the growth of the cannabis industry.

People within the health industry have voiced concerns that prescribing medicinal cannabis could increase recreational use - a position advocates for medicinal cannabis reject as they believe recreational and medicinal use are completely different things.

A recent RNZ report spoke of the need for medical professionals to research the facts around prescribing medicinal cannabis (as they do for other new pharmaceuticals) before assuming they know what the drug will do.

New Zealand’s emerging cannabis growing industry has also been struggling as prescriptions for the products have been lower than expected. However, the recent changes in regulation allowing medicinal cannabis growers to grow more plants, develop more products locally and increase how much they export will have a positive effect on the industry.

The ability to export products overseas is critically important as New Zealand’s medicinal cannabis market is very small and without the ability to export, cannabis growers were struggling to be financially viable.

The legalisation of medicinal cannabis allows people to find relief from their condition or symptoms when everything else they have tried has failed. The products that have been approved for use have been thoroughly vetted and patients have the safety of knowing that a health professional is monitoring them as they use the product to ensure they are safe and well.

While cannabis has been used to support people’s health in various ways for thousands of years, the stigma around its use seems to have infringed on how it can help with very real and debilitating conditions.

These recent regulation changes will hopefully support both the growers and consumers, allowing more choices in products and markets. The hope is that with increased competition the price of prescriptions will go down.


As with everything, please discuss your health concerns with a qualified health professional before embarking on any treatment.

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