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2020 New Zealand Cannabis Referendum

2020 New Zealand Cannabis Referendum

On the 17th of October, the 2020 New Zealand cannabis referendum will take place, with early voting allowed from the 3rd of October in line with the 2020 general election and a euthanasia referendum. Citizens of New Zealand will have the choice to vote for or against the proposed ‘Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill’. This non-binding referendum has the potential to legalise the sale, use, possession, and production of cannabis within New Zealand. The following article will discuss the proposed Bill and explain what the new laws mean and how they will be introduced.

Following the general election in 2017, a confidence and supply agreement was drafted between the Labour Party and the Green Party. This agreement committed the government to hold ‘a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at, or by, the 2020 general election’. This agreement followed the green party manifesto of 2016, which promised to legalise individual cultivation and personal use of cannabis if it was successful in forming a government.

Current Laws Regarding Cannabis in New Zealand

Currently, in New Zealand, the possession of cannabis is illegal and regulated under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. Individuals found to breach current laws regarding cannabis could face a maximum of three years in prison or a $500 fine; however, nowadays, imprisonment for personal possession is extremely rare. Furthermore, individuals who are terminally ill are protected under the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act 2018, which means they cannot be prosecuted for possessing or consuming cannabis or cannabis-related products. 

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, an individual possessing more than 28 grams or 100 joints, is considered a supplier of cannabis and could face a maximum prison sentence of 8 years. An individual found to be growing cannabis could face a maximum of 7 years in prison.

At present, regulated cannabis-based pharmaceuticals can be prescribed by a medical professional or doctor, however, there is a stringent criterion which individuals must meet before being prescribed any cannabis-related product. From spring of 2016 onwards, a cannabis extract - with the trade name Sativex – is the only product which is authorised for use, although, it is not subsidised and so patients must cover the full marketed cost.

The Proposed ‘Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill’

It is important to be aware, the proposed Bill will not impact the already legal status of medicinal cannabis or hemp production, but rather improve the availability of medicinal cannabis to the wider public. According to the New Zealand government, the proposed Bill will allow adults (any person over the age of 20) to possess and consume cannabis in limited circumstances. This means adults will be allowed to purchase up to 14g (grams) of dried cannabis (or its equivalent) on a daily basis from licensed shops and consume the product on private property or a licensed premise.  It also permits single individuals to grow up to 2 plants and households to grow up to 4 plants. Furthermore, it will be legal to share up to 14 grams of dried cannabis with another adult person. Although, laws against driving under the influence of cannabis and consuming cannabis in the workplace will remain in place and will not be affected by the referendum results.

The intention of the ‘Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill’ is to reduce cannabis abuse in individuals, families, whānau, and thus, society as a whole. The proposed bill aims to eliminate the illegal supply of cannabis by making legal cannabis - that meets quality and potency requirements - readily available. Advice on the risks associated with cannabis use will be provided at times of purchase and health warnings will be printed on packages.

The proposed Bill also aims to limit the public visibility of cannabis, whilst also increasing health and social services to support families and whānau. The new laws surrounding cannabis could reduce its availability to young people, whilst also ensuring the consequences of breaching the new laws are fair. According to the government, any persons below the age of 20 found in possession of cannabis will not face a criminal conviction. Instead, they would receive a health-focused response such as access to educational sessions or health and social services. At most, young people could face a minimal fine.

Following the general election, and if at least 50% of citizens vote ‘yes’ in the referendum, the succeeding government can submit a Bill to Parliament which would legalise and regulate cannabis. The result of the upcoming referendum would not legalise cannabis right away, however, members of the public would have the opportunity to present their thoughts and opinions on how the law should be introduced. Concerns have already been raised on the availability of medical cannabis and hemp following an undesired outcome in the referendum. The New Zealand government has assured that medicinal cannabis will not be affected and its use will still be permitted if prescribed by a doctor or medical professional. Hemp will also remain legal. 

If the ‘Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill’ is passed, it will allow the government to control how cannabis is produced and supplied. The New Zealand government will have control of the locations and trading hours of premises that sell cannabis, as well as, the total volume of licensed cannabis available for sale and the potency and contents of cannabis and cannabis products. The government aims to introduce an excise tax when any cannabis product is packaged and labelled for sale. Moreover, under the new laws, a licensing system will be implemented, meaning all cannabis companies must hold the relevant license and only certain licensed companies will be permitted to import cannabis seeds.

If the Referendum is Successful, How Will the New Cannabis Laws be Introduced?

All votes for the referendum will not be counted straight after the polls close. The Electoral Commission aims to publish preliminary referendum results on the 30th of October; however, the official results will not be known until the 6th of November, 2020.

If the Bill passes, it will mean licensed cannabis products would gradually be made available for purchase. The initially available products would include dried and fresh cannabis, cannabis plants, and seeds. Following on from this, other cannabis products, such as CBD sprays, oils, cosmetics, patches, and other cannabis products such as edibles will undergo regulation and approval by the Authority.

Other Useful Facts About the Proposed Bill

The proposed Bill regards 14g of cannabis to be equivalent to 70g of fresh cannabis, 14 cannabis seed (although previously mentioned cultivating restrictions still apply to households and individuals), 210 grams of cannabis and cannabis-related edibles, 980 grams of liquids or 3.5g of concentrates. All products marketed under the new laws will have labels informing the consumer of how much the product compares to the daily purchase limit.

Lastly, under the new Bill, having cannabis delivered by mail or courier will not be permitted. Furthermore, purchasing cannabis is only legal from licensed cannabis bodies, with only certain license holders being permitted to import seeds for cannabis cultivation.

Research Polling Statistics

Interestingly, the current prime minister, Jacinda Arden, has refused to reveal her opinion on the legalisation of cannabis in the forthcoming referendum. However, recent polls in New Zealand, performed by managing partner Emanuel Kalafatelis of Research NZ, suggests that a successful referendum result relies on younger generations turning up to vote. In the most recent poll, 46% of people intend to vote in favour of legalising cannabis, with 40% not in favour. The remaining 14% of individuals polled are still unsure of how they intend to vote, although, this number has greatly reduced from 25% earlier in the year.

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