How Will We Measure Progress Post Legalization?

progress post legalization

NZ cannabis referendum is less than 6 weeks away

On 17 October, New Zealand will hold a referendum on whether cannabis should be made legal for adult recreational use. It will become the first country to put its cannabis legalisation fate in the hands of its citizens. 

But while the historic lure is great, there are questions as to what goals will be accomplished by legalising the crop. Campaigns supporting legal cannabis tout significant tax revenue and a major hit to the black market’s coffers. They also cite significant reductions in incarceration, which would free up much-needed resources for police and the judicial sector. 

And while the opposition view cannabis legalisation as a ploy to get the entire country high, supporters claim the opposite - that cannabis legalisation would actually improve education about drug dependency, thereby creating a healthier environment. 

But assuming the majority of Kiwis vote “Yes” to cannabis legalisation during the referendum, how will we measure progress on these promised effects post-legalization?   

Other countries’ cannabis approach serve as examples

While New Zealand will be the first to hold a national referendum on cannabis legalisation, it isn’t the first to tackle the issue of legalising the drug. Uruguay and Canada have legalised cannabis, giving us years of policies to measure whether or not post-legalisation goals are feasible. 

  • Uruguay was the first country to legalise cannabis. There, the government controls cannabis production and residents can grow the plant at home, or obtain it from social clubs and pharmacies. 
  • Canada became the second country to legalise cannabis. There, government also regulates how cannabis is distributed, albeit leaving exact policy to territories and provinces. 

While Uruguay has a unique approach with the provision for social clubs, Canada presents a much similar scenario to New Zealand. However, cannabis has only been legal for two years in Canada, which is a short time to set a global example. Despite that fact, Canada already has some measurable progress in some areas: 

  • Huge sales 
    Statistics Canada reports that Canada had $104 million in cannabis sales in July alone. This significant number reflects the consistent growth we’ve seen since the country legalised cannabis. For instance, as of last June, Canada’s cannabis sales consisted of 9,976 kilograms of dry and 9,614 litres of oil. Compare that to the previous June when only medical cannabis was legal - sales were 2,151 kilograms of dry and 4.652 litres of oil. 
  • Declining black market 
    One of the most promised results of legal cannabis is a significant decline in black market sales. So far, Canada hasn’t seen newsworthy progress in that regard, but there has been some slow down. As of June of last year, legal sales accounted for around 26 percent of cannabis sales in Canada - a market which was once dominated by the black market. 

Other countries have also reformed cannabis laws. Mexico’s high court ruled cannabis criminalisation is unconstitutional, and the government is working on legislation there. Spain allows social clubs whose members have access to cannabis. Eleven states in the United States have legalised recreational cannabis.   

New Zealand’s cannabis post-legalisation predictions

The upcoming referendum is based on the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill. The bill legalises possession of up to 14 grams of cannabis for adults aged 20 and over. Growing up to four plants per household will also be legal. 

The referendum, however, is not binding. If the majority of New Zealanders vote “Yes” during the upcoming referendum, the bill will move to parliament and go through the readings and votes, just like a normal bill. 

If the bill becomes law, measuring progress post-legalisation will depend heavily on cannabis proponents’ promises coming true. Here’s a look at some predictions: 

  • Analysts predict that New Zealand will gain up to $490 million just a year after legalisation.
  • Legalisation is also expected to significantly reduce black market operations - if not eliminate them.
  • Proponents predict that resources will be freed for police and the judiciary, allowing them concentrate on actual crimes.
  • Proponents also claim that legalising cannabis will improve drug education, which would also improve healthy cannabis consumption.  

Final words - Only time will tell

Canada presents the best example of how post-legalisation progress will be measured. There, the most significant factors are high tax revenue and black market decline. While tax revenue is on the rise, the black market decline has been quite slow. Most of that is due to the countries supply issues and licensing red tape. 

But Canada’s cannabis law is only 2 years old. Perhaps in a decade more accurate measurements will be available, giving a clearer answer as to whether legal cannabis is a success or failure. In the meantime, New Zealand will only get a chance at joining that conversation if the majority of voters choose Yes on 17 October.