Confirmation: importing (some) medical marijuana is lawful

Provided it was lawfully obtained overseas for the treatment of a medical condition, you legally are permitted to bring up to 31 days worth of medical marijuana into New Zealand. Here's the proof.

Last month I wrote a pair of posts arguing that, under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, s 8(2)(l), a person is entitled to bring on their person into NZ up to a month's supply of medical marijuana if obtained lawfully overseas to treat a medical condition. I should note at the outset that it wasn't me who discovered this issue - it was Nelson lawyer Sue Grey who did so in the course of successfully obtaining a discharge without conviction for a Nelson woman who had mailed medical marijuana to herself from the US. More on Sue in a moment.

Because the response to the posts was quite interesting. First of all, the Associate Minister of Health, Peter Dunne, flat out said I was wrong - that marijuana brought into NZ for any reason is a controlled drug that cannot be lawfully possessed. Apparently his sole basis for doing so (according to the Ministry's response to an OIA request) was a short press release from his Ministry

(He also, quite correctly, pointed out that my separate claim that medical marijuana would be freely available in Australia in a year's time was wrong ... I misunderstood the nature of recent legal developments there.) 

Following that initial statement, however, some subsequent rethinking must have occurred in the Ministry. For a few days later Peter Dunne was acknowledging that it was "potentially possible" to do what I had said the law allowed people to do. Which was nice to hear - I like to chalk up the few times I am right against all those that I am horribly, totally, miserably wrong. But it still left the question of what the NZ Customs service would do if and when someone tried to avail themselves of the s 8(2)(l) "loophole" (which really isn't a loophole at all, but a sensible acknowledgment that NZ cannot make laws for the world as a whole).

For it's all very well the Ministry of Health accepting that the law lets people bring on their person into NZ up to a month's supply of medical marijuana if obtained lawfully overseas to treat a medical condition. However, they don't police our borders. So the really important question is, what will a customs officer do if you show up at Auckland International Airport with a couple of blocks of marijuana laced chocolate that you were prescribed in Vancouver to treat the nausea caused by your chemotherapy treatments?

Due to Sue Grey's indefatigable efforts on this issue (I said we'd come back to her), we now know the answer to that question. She OIA'd Nicky Wagner, the Minister of Customs, to find out, and last week received this answer:

Customs' role is to enforce legislation at the border on behalf of government agencies. The importation of a controlled drug is an offence under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. However, s 8(2)(l) of the Misuse of Drugs Act provides and exemption for people entering or leaving the country with up to one month's supply of a controlled drug, in specific circumstances. The controlled drug must have been lawfully supplied, and supplied for the purpose of treating a medical condition.

The exemption applies to all controlled drugs, including cannabis and cannabis products. However, customs officers will seize the controlled drugs at the border if they are not satisfied that the controlled drugs have been lawfully supplied for the treatment of a medical condition.

A traveller who arrives into New Zealand, and can establish to Customs' satisfaction that the controlled drug they are carrying was lawfully supplied overseas and was supplied for the purpose of treating a medical condition, can legally possess one months supply of that controlled drug.

Which is great! If customs officials do as their Minister says they should, then (some) medical marijuana can lawfully be brought into NZ and used here! Except ... there's a bunch of provisos anyone thinking of availing themselves of this provision ought to bear in mind. 

First of all, note that this isn't an open invitation to bring in a month's worth of dak to smoke. You need to fit within the exemption - in particular, you need to have a medical condition that marijuana can help alleviate. And you also need to convince a customs officer of this fact. So if you buy a couple of ounces of weed in Colorado to "help get to sleep at night" and then try to bring it into NZ, expect to be met with extreme scepticism ... and likely have it confiscated. At the least, I would recommend having a prescription from a doctor for the product in your possession (which shouldn't be hard to get, in cases of genuine medical need).

Second, the exception doesn't allow you to bring in marijuana (or other controlled drugs) for other people. You can't set up a sort of Golden Bay Buyers Club arrangement whereby an individual imports a supply of medpot for a group. If someone who has brought medical marijuana into NZ under the s 8(2)(l) exemption subsequently gives it to anyone else, that is still an illegal supply of a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act. 

Third, while NZ may allow you to bring medical marijuana into the country, not every country will let you take the stuff out. In particular, marijuana is still an illegal drug under U.S. Federal Law. So whilst individual U.S. States may allow marijuana to be supplied and used, bringing it into Federally controlled areas (such as airports) courts real trouble. This website gives further information.

And finally, Peter Dunne has tempered his statements accepting that s 8(2)(l) allows bringing medical marijuana to be brought to New Zealand with the claim that it does not allow repeated importations. Of course, nothing in s 8(2)(l) expressly says this. But I'm guessing his position is based on a purposive interpretation of the provision - that it is intended to cover the visiting traveller who needs medication whilst temporarily in NZ. Someone who makes monthly trips overseas to refill a prescription would thus fall outside of the reason the exemption exists - they would, in effect, be importing the drug in a way that the Misuse of Drugs Act prohibits. Whether that understanding of the legislation is correct or not may be something that gets tested at a later date, but realise that it is what those charged with enforcing the law currently think.

Anyway - there we are. Importing (some) medical marijuana into New Zealand is lawful. Just as I told you a month ago.