Early results have revealed a narrow majority of voters in New Zealand (NZ) have rejected the country’s referendum on a proposed bill to legalise and regulate the sale of cannabis to adults all citizens of twenty years and older, the country’s Electoral Commission announced this morning. Despite having their most progressive government since the 1970s, and voting in favour of introducing euthanasia, preliminary results show 53.1% of Kiwis are against the legalisation of cannabis, with 46.1% in support. Although, the official outcome of the referendum will not be announced until an estimated 480,000 ‘special’ ballots are tallied next week on the 6th of November, 2020. These ballots are estimated to make up 17% of total votes and will be cast by overseas voters, the military, prisoners released on remand, and hospitals.
The Commission previously stated that the referendum ballots would not be counted until after October 17th so as to keep the parliamentary elections which were held on the same day the centre of focus. The Labour Party, which achieved a landslide victory, vowed to introduce the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill into Parliament if it gained a majority of voters support. The proposed bill was released by the government prior in the year to give voters time to read and understand the upcoming referendum. Certain local business leaders referred to the proposed legislation as ‘ground-breaking’ for provisions which would reserve market share for micro-cultivators, support indigenous-run business and facilitate the development of consumption lounges.
A spokesperson for Jacinda Arden announced that the Prime Minister - who has admitted to smoking cannabis during her youth - voted for both the proposed End of Life Choice Bill and the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill. The legalisation of cannabis would have allowed any person over the age of 20 to purchase up to fourteen grams of cannabis from legal licensed outlets per day. Furthermore, pro-cannabis campaigners, including the former Prime Minister Helen Clark, argued prohibition-based policy strategies will not reduce cannabis use or supply with NZ. However, prominent No campaigners have claimed legalisation of cannabis would allow big cannabis companies to establish a cannabis market that would exploit and harm young people. Pro-cannabis campaigners dismissed this claim and suggested strict regulation would in fact prevent foreign companies from dominating the market.
Justice Minister Andrew Little released a statement today regarding the two proposed bills and the action plan of the NZ government as a result of the non-binding vote. As the End of Life Act has passed the parliamentary process with an overwhelming 62.2% majority and gained Royal Assent, it will be introduced in 12 months after the final result is announced on the 6th November 2020. This Bill will give individuals over the age of 18 with a terminal illness the choice to apply to end their life under specific criteria. The Act will be administered by the Ministry of Health and until the 6th of November, 2021, assisted dying will remain illegal in NZ. Unfortunately, the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill will not be introduced as legislation by the Labour Government this term.
Jefferies Equity Research estimated the cannabis industry to be worth approximately $11bn globally in 2018 and could reach as high as $50 by 2030, as more countries begin to legalise cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes. Furthermore, Wellington-based Business and Economic Research (BERL Economics) previously predicted the proposed legalisation of cannabis and a regulated market could generate approximately 1.5 billion NZ dollars in
retail sales (£767 million). This prediction was further supported by medicinal cannabis entrepreneur Paul manning who claimed the legalisation of cannabis was a missed opportunity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as it could have introduced billions into NZ economy.
According to Manu Caddie, regulation and innovation lead for Rua Bioscience in the Tairawhiti region, the special ballots are unlikely to change the outcome of the referendum. In order to change the preliminary result, 70% of the special votes will need to be in favour of the proposed legalisation bill, which seems highly improbable.
Many NZ business leaders expressed dismay with the preliminary referendum results but celebrated the business opportunities in New Zealand’s prospering medical market. Michael Breeze, managing director of the licensed producer ‘Pure Isolation’ claims the medical cannabis opportunity is still a priority for licensed businesses and a great opportunity in NZ, both economically and in the sense of enhancing patient access to beneficial medical cannabis. Zoe Reece, CEO and founder of cannabis company ‘Ora Pharm’ claimed the conversations leading up to the vote dramatically enhanced awareness and current availability of cannabis and cannabis-related products. She also claims these conversations to reflect great support for medicinal cannabis in New Zealand.
Thus far, Canada and Uruguay are the only two countries to have legalised cannabis at a national level.