Explainer: Cannabis referendum – Newsroom

Recreational Cannabis Legalisation

Cannabis Referendum

There are four big decisions to get ready to make in this year’s elections. As well as picking a preferred party and candidate, voters will vote on the End of Life Choice Bill and whether they support a bill which would legalise cannabis. Here are the basics on the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.

What am I voting on?
The referendum asks the following question: “Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?”  You can tick yes or no.

So what exactly is the Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill?
The 65-page proposed bill is in draft form. It’s not yet complete and is called a work in progress draft for consultation. You can read it in here. If passed, it would legalise recreational cannabis use for people 20 and over. It would allow cannabis and edibles to be sold and consumed.

Cannabis use for medical reasons is already legal if prescribed by a doctor. Medsafe has approved Sativex for use with for patients with spasticity due to multiple sclerosis, but it’s not funded by Pharmac. Treatment can cost over $1000 per month.

Aside from not facing jail time if caught with cannabis, will this bill change much?
Yes. The bill goes beyond decriminalisation. We’re talking products, shops, packaging with health warnings – an entire industry – complete with regulations such as excise tax, levies, licensing and set trading hours. Advertising would be banned but companies would be able to put their names on packaging.

Are we talking ‘big weed’?
There won’t be a monopoly but it could be a case of five big players and a bevy of craft producers. It’s proposed a cap would be set of the quantity of cannabis which would be allowed to be sold. No one company would be allowed to supply more than 20 percent of the cap. A portion of the cap would be set aside for small-scale growers.

Can people grow their own?
Yes, two plants per person can be grown with a household maximum of four plants.

Shops where cannabis can be purchased and/or consumed would be allowed. Photo: Unsplash

Where can people use cannabis?
Smoking in public or in a vehicle in a public place will not be permitted. As well as being able to use cannabis in non-public places, premises similar to bars would be allowed where people could use it. 

These would be licensed, have a duty manager and operate with the aim of reducing cannabis-related harm. Some could be BYO only, as two separate licences – retail and consumption – would be needed to operate. While this may seem at odds with smokefree regulations, the idea is these premises would allow places where people could consume cannabis away from people under the age of 20.

Communities can have a say on where these premises are located. 

If enough people vote yes, will it be legal to use cannabis on September 20?
No. Official results won’t be announced until Friday 9 October and even then you won’t be able to legally light up if it’s a majority yes vote.

It’s up to the incoming government to then introduce the Bill to Parliament where it will follow the usual process before it becomes law. Public input would be sought as part of this process. It could take several months after the referendum before it’s legal to use cannabis. 

Could the incoming government choose not to introduce the Bill even if the vote is yes?
Technically yes, although ignoring public views would be unpopular. To date all parties currently in Parliament except the National Party have said they would pass the bill if the public vote yes.

What happens if it’s a majority no vote?
The law will stay as it currently stands and recreational use will remain illegal.

What are the polls saying?
There’s not much in it. At present there’s more ‘yes’ than ‘no’ in a poll completed for the Helen Clark Foundation by UMR with 48 percent saying yes and 43 percent saying no. Of those who were unsure, three percent were leaning toward yes. An earlier poll completed in February by Horizon Research for Helius Therapeutics showed 54 percent of those surveyed supported the bill.  

A different February poll showed more people were against the bill than in support of it. The Newshub Reid Research poll  had 47.7 percent saying no and 39.4 percent saying yes, with the remainder unsure. 

How many people use cannabis already?
New Zealand’s longitudinal studies estimate 80 percent of New Zealanders have used cannabis at least once. Rates of regular use decline with age. 

Edibles will be legal and packaging must include information about the amount of THC and CBD they contain. Packaging must be child-resistant. Photo: Unsplash

What is the intention of the proposed bill?

The aim is to reduce cannabis-related harm. The ways the bill intends to do this are summarised as:

  • providing access to legal cannabis that meets quality and potency requirements

  • eliminating the illegal supply of cannabis

  • raising awareness of the health risks associated with cannabis use

  • restricting young people’s access to cannabis

  • limiting the public visibility of cannabis

  • requiring health warnings on packaging and at the time of purchase

  • improving access to health and social services, and other kinds of support for families/whānau

  • making sure the response to any breach of the law is fair, encourages compliance, and reduces overall harm.

Is cannabis harmful to health?
Yes, it can be for some people. New Zealand’s Dunedin and Christchurch longitudinal studies have each followed roughly 1000 people from birth since the 1970s. Heavy cannabis use before the age of 18 increases the risk of schizophrenia by 10.3 percent. For those who use heavily after 18 the risk increases by 4.7 percent. The studies found the risk was mainly experienced by those who had a  predisposing genetic make-up.

Regular smoking has also been linked to respiratory conditions and gum disease.

Will legalising it reduce harm?
It’s hard to know and outcomes so far are mixed. Legalisation has happened elsewhere with a range of different models but there’s insufficient evidence to form a conclusion either way as legalisation has mostly happened recently. 

The Netherlands has tolerated cannabis sale in coffee shops since the 1970s. While not fully legal, possession is a low priority offence. The number of people who use cannabis in the Netherlands is similar to the number who use it in other European countries, where it’s illegal.

In Portugal, cannabis was decriminalised in 2001 with all other drugs. At the same time more funding was funnelled into drug treatment services. The decriminalisation hasn’t changed drug use rates but health outcomes have improved. Some of the improvement is linked to needle use for drugs other than cannabis.

Canada’s legalisation occurred in 2018, so it’s too soon to be certain of the impact. The United States state-by-state legalisation approach started in 2012. Cannabis is illegal under federal law, but 11  states have legalised its use. Rules differ between states making it hard to get a picture of the effects of legalisation.

What are the harms of the status quo?
While 80 percent of people have used cannabis before the age of 25, it’s Māori who are disproportionally arrested for drug offences. A drug conviction can impact job prospects or overseas travel. 

A major law change last year which said a prosecution should not be brought unless required in the public interest has not made much difference to the number of prosecutions, or the rate of Māori facing prosecution. 

Will cannabis become cheaper?
Not necessarily. Regulations will mean growing and supply will have plenty of red tape. The proposed bill talks of excise tax being applied to products based on potency, similar to how the tax on alcohol is applied. Levies and licensing fees would also be charged and there will be strict laws around packaging from health warnings, potency information, to ensuring products are packaged in child-resistant containers. 

Why 14 grams?
Fourteen grams is half an ounce. This amount of cannabis was chosen on advice to the Government that it would be enough for a regular cannabis smoker for one week. The proposed bill allows this amount to be purchased daily.  

Other countries have different amounts. In the Netherlands, coffee shops can sell five grams, in the US the amount a person can possess ranges from 20 to 71 grams. In Canada it’s 30 grams.

There is likely to be a limit on potency, but this will not affect the 14 gram allowance. A person could buy 14 grams of cannabis with high THC – the psychoactive component – or 14 grams cannabis with low THC. Excise tax will be based on THC levels in a similar way to how alcohol taxes are set. The higher the THC levels, the higher the tax imposed on the product.

Clemenger BBDO’s traffic safety campaign made for the NZ Transport Agency aimed to highlight slow reaction times when driving after using cannabis. Photo: Screenshot

Why was 20 chosen as the minimum age?
This is a pragmatic, rather than scientific decision. A precautionary approach would be to set the age limit at 25, this would best limit adverse effects on developing brains. However, research shows many people have used cannabis by age 21. To reduce people buying on the black market it was thought 20 was a sensible compromise.

What about drug driving and workplace drug rules?
Drug driving is illegal at present and this would not change. Workplaces have their own safety rules relating to alcohol and drugs.