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New Zealand to hold a referendum vote on the legalization of recreational cannabis in 2020

During the 2020 general election, New Zealand will hold a referendum to determine whether to legalize recreational cannabis use, according to the justice minister, Andrew Little.

The Justice Minister told reporters that “The Cabinet decision is that [the referendum] will be held at the 2020 general election, the agreement is that it will be binding.”

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, a member of the Labour Party, promised this referendum back in 2017, a bargain which led to a coalition government with the Green and NZ First parties. Before this coalition, the conservative National Party dominated the island nation’s politics for nine years.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden/ Source: Governor-General of New Zealand

How the 2017 election set the political field for pot-related negotiations

New Zealand is known for being a socially liberal region. In spite of the fact that prior governments in New Zealand decriminalized prostitution and legalized same-sex marriage, recreational cannabis use remained a political taboo.

Before the 2017 election, neither the center-left Labour⸺the political party currently leading New Zealand⸺or the center-right National party addressed cannabis in their political platforms. The 2017 election ultimately forced the Labour Party’s hand when it came to pot-politics.

Neither the Labour Party nor the National party won enough support to govern New Zealand outright during the 2017 election. To win the support of the governmentally left-leaning Green Party⸺one of two parties that gave now Prime Minister Jacinda Arden the majority she needed to govern⸺the Labour party caved and agreed to put the legalization of recreational cannabis use up for a public vote.

“Politicians are the most risk-averse group of people that I have ever met,” Chloë Swarbrick, a Green Party lawmaker advocating for the legalization of recreational cannabis use in New Zealand, told The New York Times.

According to Swarbrick, there hadn’t been a political will to invest political time on such controversial issues as cannabis before the 2017 election, and that while she hoped the government would pass a recreational cannabis law before a referendum vote, one isn’t likely to materialize.

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Swarbrick hopes that the wording of the recreational cannabis law will give the island “Clarity and certainty about what New Zealanders are actually voting for. It means we don’t end up with a Brexit-type situation when we’re trying to figure out what a ‘yes’ vote actually means.”

Justice Minister Little told Radio New Zealand back in May that holding a referendum vote addressing cannabis use during the 2020 election will be convenient since most voters will be heading to the polls for the general election anyway, many of his colleagues don’t want the pot issue to pollute the process of the election campaigns.

New Zealand just passed its medicinal cannabis bill to make medical marijuana widely available pic.twitter.com/rYsJzu0pK8

— TicToc by Bloomberg (@tictoc) December 15, 2018

What’s legal in the great Down Under anyway?

Currently, recreational cannabis use is not legal in New Zealand. Australia has recently loosened legislative requirements around medicinal marijuana use, but recreational use remains illegal. Additionally, New Zealand lawmakers passed a bill to legalize medicinal marijuana for terminally ill patients just last week.

According to the NZ Drug Foundation, cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in New Zealand. “By the age of 21, 80 percent of New Zealanders have tried cannabis at least once. And 80 percent developed a pattern of heavy use,” the Foundation says on its website.

Swarbrick argues that New Zealanders would vote favorably for the legalization of recreational use.

“We’ve had countless opinion polls for decades now, confirming New Zealanders are positively well ahead of political action on the issue of cannabis law reform. This binding referendum presents an opportunity to have the will of the people trigger meaningful legislative change,” Swarbrick said.

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New Zealand’s National Party leader Simon Bridges remains opposed to the legalization of recreational cannabis use, arguing that to legalize marijuana would normalize the use of drugs. Other members argue that this referendum is merely a ploy to distract voters during the 2020 election.

Either way, pot politicos should keep their eye on New Zealand as both parties gear up for the 2020 election and the referendum vote.

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