New Zealand is joining the list of nations moving towards the end of prohibition for marijuana. On May 7, Justice Minister Andrew Little announced details on plans to legalize and regulate marijuana in New Zealand.
The minority government coalition has agreed to the foundational elements of a referendum which would allow New Zealander adults 20 years and older to use, own, sell, and cultivate cannabis. The referendum will appear on New Zealand’s 2020 ballot.
“Officials are now empowered to draft the legislation with stakeholder input, and the Electoral Commission will draft the referendum question to appear on the ballot,” Little said in a Press Release. “The voters’ choice will be binding because all of the parties that make up the current Government have committed to abide by the outcome.”
According to Little, the referendum measure introduced by the minority government coalition will be binding, which in Kiwi-legislative-speak means that if voters approve the measure, the government will be obligated to follow through with the will of the people.
The referendum measure, as currently written, allows for limited home cultivation and would license areas where people could consume cannabis socially, similar to California’s licenses for cannabis cafes. The measure would place restrictions on advertisements for cannabis products.
What would the referendum allow in New Zealand?
In looking at the proposed referendum measure, it looks quite similar to many prohibition lifting bills in the United States.
The bill would require marijuana consumers to be 20 years or older, there would be limited home-growing options, the necessary regulations and licenses must be upheld by cannabis entrepreneurs, and any cannabis tax-related revenue would go towards funding health education.
Additionally, the proposed referendum measure consists of several primary objectives and secondary objectives, according to Little’s Press Release. The primary objectives of the referendum measure are aimed toward addressing the overall well-being of New Zealanders while ensuring that abuse or overuse of marijuana is avoided.
The proposed measure would address the harms associated with cannabis use, including health-related harm, social harms, and harms to youth who use cannabis.
Any revenue generated from legal cannabis sales, according to the primary objectives, should contribute towards health-relevant measures which provide education and addiction services. These services would be particularly aimed towards youth, with the goal of increasing the age of first reported use of cannabis.
Secondary objectives include goals aimed toward legalization for the purpose of disempowering gangs and disbanding the illegal trade of cannabis on the black market.
Additionally, decriminalization has also been addressed through these objectives, as legislators hope to lower the prison population, especially the Maori prison population, whose futures have been negatively affected by cannabis use.
The measure does not currently include expungement language, as Little argues that “simply decriminalizing cannabis would impede the ability to control [the] quality of products,” and that “any of the harm minimization associated with removing criminal elements.”
Little argues that legalizing marijuana at the national-level will help to ensure a more “controlled and tightly regulated market” allowing the government to “steer market behavior towards achieving the objective of minimizing harm, while providing safe and legal access to cannabis.”
The measure will be tailored to meet New Zealand’s unique cultural practices and will maintain fiscal sustainability.
What will the vote look like for New Zealand?
According to Little, New Zealand’s executive branch of legislation, the Cabinet, has agreed to include the referendum measure in the 2020 General Election.
“[The] Cabinet has agreed to hold a binding referendum at the 2020 General Election to determine whether personal use of recreational cannabis should be legalized. If the binding nature of the referendum is to be meaningful it will be necessary to be as clear and certain about the outcome of a ‘yes’ vote as possible,” Little wrote in his general summary of the measure.
“The referendum question should provide voters with a clear choice on this important matter,” he said. “Also, there may be merit in allowing for the public education in the lead up to the referendum to better understand the final regulatory model that is adopted.”
A political poll released in January found that 60 percent of New Zealanders are in favor of legalizing the recreational use of cannabis. Surprisingly, only 24 percent were strongly opposed to legalizing cannabis, the remaining 16 percent were undecided.
If New Zealand does vote in favor of legalizing and regulating cannabis for commercial use, it would be following in the political steps of such nations as Canada and Uruguay.
The benefit of not being one of the first nations to end the prohibition of marijuana is that New Zealand can learn from Canada’s and Uruguay’s cannabis-related policy mistakes. Additionally, New Zealanders won’t have to wait too long to see cannabis reform if the referendum measure is adopted.
“Subject to Cabinet decisions, any legislation to be enacted before the referendum, that includes provisions relating to the overall system of cannabis, including the cultivation, sale and supply, and use of recreational cannabis in New Zealand, would preferably be passed by December 2019, with March 2020 as an absolute deadline, in order to undertake the referendum at the 2020 General Election,” Little wrote.