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Medical Cannabis Legalisation

New Zealand’s government has revealed the final details of a marijuana legalization proposal that will appear on the September general election ballot.

Voters will decide on the policy change through a referendum, where they will be asked “yes” or “no” to approving the “Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.”

Early details about the measure were released in December. And on Friday, the government shared the full proposal, which would make it legal for adults 20 and older to purchase and possess cannabis, cultivate two plants for personal use and visit marijuana “coffee shops” where on-site consumption would be allowed.

Individuals would be able to purchase up to 14 grams of cannabis from licensed retailers and also gift up to 14 grams to another adult.

At the beginning of implementation if voters approve the measure, retailers could only sell cannabis plants and seeds. But a regulatory body established under the bill called the Cannabis Regulatory Authority would later be able to approve “the introduction of other licensed products for sale, including concentrates and cannabis edibles, through regulations,” according to a summary.

“Medicinal cannabis and hemp will not be affected by the outcome of the referendum,” a summary says. “Medicinal use of cannabis will still be allowed if prescribed by a doctor, and hemp will still be legal.”

The government explained that the purpose of the legislation is to mitigate the illicit market, promote public health and ensure quality control on marijuana products. Cannabis businesses would be banned from advertising under the measure.

If more than 50 percent of voters approve the ballot question, cannabis wouldn’t be immediately legalized. Rather, it would then be incumbent on the legislature to pass the bill that is the subject of the referendum, which would come after legislators gathered public input on the reform move.

While some wanted the referendum to be self-executing, meaning the law would take effect as soon as it was approved by voters, this version is “binding” in the sense that lawmakers are effectively required to pass the bill—but it could still be amended, and it’s not clear how significant those changes could end up being.

According to a report released this week by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, the country stands to generate $490 million in tax revenue annually from legal cannabis sales—though that projection is dependent on illicit sales being largely replaced by the regulated market.

The three main political parties reached an agreement about the basic details of the legalization referendum and released that information in May 2019. The referendum on the issue is the product of a deal that the Green Party struck after agreeing to help install Labour Party head Jacinda Ardern as the prime minister following the 2017 election.

“It has taken two and a half years of negotiation behind the scenes across our Parliament and decades of work by activist, advocates and researchers, who have sought to understand how best to create an evidence-informed approach to reduce drug harm in our communities,” MP Chlöe Swarbrick of the Green party said. “We are taking this conversation out of petty partisan politics and placing it in the hands of you.”

The Green party also said that with the new legislation there is “now have a clear vision of how a safe, regulated cannabis market would work in Aotearoa, and a chance to ditch the dangerous black-market for good.”

Drug policy reform advocates outside the government also praised the new legislation.

“These final new details strengthen the controls from the initial draft, making it a world-leading piece of public health legislation. The bill delivers government-controlled regulations over the production, supply and use of cannabis, with the intent of reducing harms, particularly for young people,” Ross Bell, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, said.

“At a time when comprehensive public health controls are proving their worth and saving lives, we applaud the Government’s work at designing cannabis regulations appropriate for New Zealand’s local needs,” he added. “This final version gives all the information New Zealanders need to help inform their vote”

It remains to be seen whether New Zealand voters will back the proposal, as polling on the issue has elicited mixed results. One of the most recent surveys, released in March, showed that 54 percent of residents are in favor of legalizing marijuana for personal use—a six percentage point increase since the previous poll.

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Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.

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