New Zealand Prepares for Cannabis Referendum

In May, the New Zealand government announced further details for its upcoming referendum on cannabis legalisation.

The referendum - a concession secured by the Green Party in return for backing the Labour-led coalition - will be held at the next General Election, on 21 November 2020.

But what form would the potential legalised system take? Like Canada, New Zealand’s left-leaning government has adopted a public health approach to legalisation, with the stated aim of minimising harms caused by cannabis use, while disempowering gangs and disrupting illegal trade. Yet even with these priorities, a range of regulatory models could be introduced in the wake of a ‘yes’ vote.  And Kiwis need only look to the UK to glimpse the complete political meltdown risked by too open-ended a referendum result.

With this in mind, the New Zealand referendum will take place on the basis of draft legislation, published in advance to show voters what the proposed recreational system will look like. This option was chosen, according to the MP Chloe Swarbrick, explicitly to “avoid any potential of a Brexit situation”.  The government also states that the referendum will be binding - although opposition parties are yet to confirm if they will honour the result should they come to power.

new zealand parliament

The proposed model

The exact legislation is still to be drafted, but the government has confirmed that it will include:

  • A minimum age of 20 to use and purchase recreational cannabis,

  • Regulations and commercial supply controls,

  • Limited home-growing options,

  • A public education programme and stakeholder engagement.

A government Cabinet paper suggests the coalition may propose a system of commercial cultivation as well as the production of concentrates and cannabis-infused products. Authorised products would then be sold in government-licensed stores, although online sales would not be permitted.  The paper suggests that home-grow and personal production of infused products will be an option, although the government may prevent domestic concentrate manufacturing on the grounds of safety.

However none of this is set in stone, as the government will consult with a range of stakeholders before publishing the draft legislation mid-2020 at the earliest. It’s also yet to be decided whether New Zealand’s existing medical cannabis programme would operate in parallel with the recreational, or whether a single framework would be introduced to regulate both.

Indications for a positive outcome

As well as offering far greater certainty as to what is being voted on, New Zealand’s poll looks set to be much less contentious than the UK’s EU referendum. Polling from January 2019 suggested that 60 percent of New Zealanders would currently vote in favour of legalising recreational cannabis, with just 24 percent opposed. 63 percent also gave support for a regulated legal cannabis market with licensed producers.

Support therefore clearly extends beyond active users, with an estimated 12 percent of New Zealand adults consuming cannabis at least once a year. This figure rises to 26 percent within the Maori population, who are also disproportionately likely to be both taken to court and given a jail sentence for cannabis possession. A 2018 report by the NZ Drug Foundation suggests that cannabis legalisation and regulation could reduce the country’s criminal justice costs, deliver tax revenues of up to NZD $240m a year, and can improve healthcare outcomes if coupled with public service investment.

If passed, New Zealand could become the third country in the world to legalise recreational cannabis after Uruguay and Canada. However, two other countries are also in the offing for this title: Luxembourg, which has pledged to legalise cannabis before the next election in 2023, and Mexico, where the Supreme Court has ruled cannabis prohibition unconstitutional and given lawmakers an October deadline to introduce alternative legislation. Whoever eventually gains the bronze medal, it is clear that momentum for legalisation is slowly gathering across the globe.

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Charlotte Bowyer