The evolution of public perception of Cannabis
For the first time in over 40 years, the central government of New Zealand is seriously reconsidering the legal status of cannabis. A cannabis referendum is a core part of the agreement sustaining the coalition between the current ruling parties.
The prospects of the referendum is steadily gaining steam, and more polls are being released to capture the emerging changes in public opinion. For the most part, these polls indicate a steady swing in public opinion towards legalization.
The status quo of Cannabis laws in New Zealand
Currently, the possession of any amount of cannabis is outlawed under the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1975. Under this code, possession of small quantities (maximum 28 grams or 100 joints) attracts a maximum sentence of 3 months incarceration or a $500 fine. The punishments become more severe from the threshold of possession for personal use, with cultivation attracting a 7-year prison term and distribution carrying the maximum 8-year sentence.
However, with the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act of 2018, terminally ill patients using medical cannabis now have a legal limb to stand on. Patients who pass onerous approval checks can get legal prescription for cannabis-based pharmaceuticals from specialist doctors.
The prospects of Cannabis reforms have never been better in the past 40 years
The current coalition government are keen on abandoning the prohibitive approach to cannabis use, deferring instead to a “health-based approach” to mitigate the harmful effects of the drug on the society and to neutralize criminals involved in the drug trade.
With this new approach, the current government deviates from a long line of predecessors. Greens MP Chloe Swarbrick dubbed the upcoming 2020 referendum the “greatest opportunity for cannabis law reform our country has seen in 40 years.”
In December 2018, lawmakers overturned the illegal status of medical marijuana and gave terminally ill patients the legal leeway to access the drug. That same year, lawmakers also amended the Misuse of Drugs Act to direct the police to focus only on prosecuting drug-related offenses which are critical to “public interests”. The directive impels the police to scale back on the prosecution of offenders caught with small quantities. This might also free up more resources for the police to clamp down harder on the illicit market suppliers and mass cultivators.
These new developments in the legal status of the drug is a reflection of an unprecedented sway of public pressure toward drug reforms. If the referendum’s outcome favors legalization, then New Zealand could be the first Asia-Pacific country to legalize recreational use.
Final words — Details of the upcoming referendum
On May 7, 2019, Justice Minister Andrew Little released details of the referendum, including articles in the draft legislation that voters can either choose to accept or reject. The referendum ballots will come with simple Yes/No questions bordering on the draft legislation.
Voters will also be presented with background cabinet papers highlighting some of the most important consequences of each and every choice. For instance, the part of the paper concerning the age issue states that cannabis is “…particularly harmful for people under 25 years old, as the brain is still developing…”, but that “setting the minimum age higher than 20… would likely push a significant number of people to the black market, which would be inconsistent with the primary aim of minimizing harm”.
The draft resolutions’ high points include:
- A minimum age of 20 to use and purchase
- Commercial supply controls
- Home-growing limits
- A ban on advertising cannabis products
- A public education program
If the ‘Yes’ votes win, then the draft legislation may be deliberated in the next parliament. Little has stated that this referendum is “binding”, as all parties in the current coalition government have agreed to honor it. However, as history books have shown, binding referendums have been disregarded by National governments in the past.