New Zealand will be holding a referendum on the ballot question, whether or not it should legalise recreational cannabis use at the 2020 general election, it was recently announced, and the decision will be binding.
A referendum refers to a general vote by an entire electorate on a single political question which has been referred to them for a direct decision. This may result in the adoption of a new law. In some countries a referendum is synonymous with a vote on a ballot question or plebiscite.
Australia defines a referendum as a vote to change the constitution, whilst a plebiscite is a vote that does not affect the constitution. In New Zealand, there are different types of referendums, which include both constitutional and non-constitutional.
Why is NZ having a referendum on cannabis?
The New Zealand cannabis legalisation referendum is a part of the confidence and supply agreement between Labour and the Green Party, made after the 2017 general election. This agreement included an obligation for the government to hold a referendum in regards to cannabis law reform. Legalising cannabis has been a key point on the agenda for the Green Party for the past two decades. In December 2016, The Green Party stated that if it were to form a government, it would legalise cannabis. The Green Party’s drug law reform policy aims to make cannabis legal for personal use, including its possession and cultivation. The Greens have made it clear that a legal age limit for personal use of cannabis will also be introduced. The current law for driving under the influence of marijuana will be replaced with the new law based on cannabinoid levels correlating with impairment.
The Greens also wanted to remove penalties for people with terminal diseases or chronic or debilitating conditions who grow, possess and use marijuana products for its medicinal benefits with the support of an authorised medical practitioner.
Currently, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 controls marijuana use in New Zealand. Possessing or using any amount of cannabis is illegal New Zealand and carries a maximum sentence of up to three months imprisonment or a $500 fine. Cultivation of marijuana leads to a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment.
Until now, only approved cannabis-based pharmaceuticals could be prescribed by a specialist physician, and only to patients who meet stringent criteria. On 11 December 2018, the New Zealand Government passed a law to make medical marijuana widely available for terminally ill patients without facing the possibility of prosecution.
Cannabis use is widespread in New Zealand, with police often turning a blind eye to small scale personal use. The referendum aims to take cannabis law reform in New Zealand further, making the laws more compatible with the increased public support and lenient attitudes towards the use of cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes.
What is the likely outcome and what would that mean for New Zealand?
The New Zealand Government’s current move to legalise medical cannabis brings some hope of a positive outcome for the cannabis referendum planned for 2020. Moreover, support for the legalisation of cannabis has been rapidly increasing in the country.
When New Zealanders who were eligible to vote were asked in July 2017 their thoughts on "possessing cannabis in a small amount for personal use," 37% favoured decriminalisation of cannabis, 31% responded that it should be illegal, and 28% responded that it should be fully legal.
Cannabis opinion poll results (August 2016)
The growing support for cannabis law reform is a sign of more ‘yes’ votes for marijuana legalisation.
Some cannabis advocates suggest looking to jurisdictions in California, Canada, and Colorado who have replaced previous cannabis laws with a more liberal cannabis law reform.
While the some of the details are still to be worked out, including how the question should be phrased, a crucial factor to consider for any referendum, the timing and binding nature of the result has been decided.
What’s happening in the rest of the world concerning cannabis legislation?
In 2012, Uruguay became the first nation in the world to legalise recreational cannabis, with an aim to replace the link between criminal organisations and the cannabis trade with more accountable state regulation. Later the same year, Colorado and Washington became the first states in the US to support cannabis legalisation for non-medical use. Currently, the use of cannabis for medical and/or recreational purposes is allowed in 33 of the 50 U.S. states.
Canada became the second largest country after Uruguay to legalise the sale, possession and recreational use of marijuana nationwide in October 2018. Around the globe, many countries are planning to reform their cannabis law.
South Korea recently legalised strictly-controlled medical use. In the UK, doctors can now prescribe approved pharmaceutical-grade cannabis products. South Africa's highest court put an end to the prohibition of the adult use of marijuana in private places. Lebanon is considering the legalisation of marijuana production for medical purposes, mostly for economic benefits. Mexico's new government and the incoming government of Luxembourg also plan to legalise recreational marijuana use.
With all these locations allowing marijuana production and consumption, New Zealand will be in good company if the referendum passes and marijuana is legalised.