Referendum on 'obsolete' cannabis law 'long overdue' - Drug Foundation

The director of the NZ Drug Foundation is welcoming a referendum on cannabis law reform, saying we need a change after 42 years of drug legislation that's "done nothing".

In an email sent out to Green Party delegates on Thursday night, the party outlined 10 big policy wins - including a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis by 2020, and more financial backing for drug and alcohol services.

Drug Foundation director Ross Bell says that as a country with one of the highest proportion of users in the world, it's about time we got onto it.

"Fundamentally for us, it's long overdue that New Zealand had a crack at its obsolete drug law. The law that's in place today, in 2017, was passed in 1975," he said.

"The reality is half the country's population have used cannabis and a lot of people get criminal convictions for that. What we know is that current approach where we try to criminalise those people that use drugs has done nothing to reduce drug use or drug harm.

"New Zealand is one of the highest users of cannabis in the world, so I think we need to do something differently - and putting that out to the public as to what something different looks like is, in 2017, only fair and reasonable."

Mr Bell said while it's good there is finally a possibility of law change, there is plenty to do before a referendum takes place, likely in 2020.

"I think New Zealand could do things before then," he said.

"One of the things we do know is Maori are four times more likely to get a criminal conviction than other people, even though the rates of cannabis use are about the same.

"Let's look at what we can do now to change police practice and put in place a Portugal-style model of reform where we replace the criminal approach with the health approach."

Mr Bell said the Drug Foundation was actually more excited by increased funding for alcohol and drug services than it was about a referendum on cannabis use, because he says they're so under-funded. He described that development as "fantastic".

Shane Le Brun, the coordinator of Medical Cannabis Awareness New Zealand (MCANZ), says while his organisation is only concerned with medicinal use of the drug, he thinks it's a good idea at a personal level.

"The thought of swapping out a six-pack of RGBs for a joint on a national scale will result in less harm in our community, because cannabis is significantly safer than alcohol," he said.

"It's always the muppets who abuse it, and you already have that with alcohol.

"The real issue is doing it in such a way that it removes the black market aspect and still removes the issue of people cross-intoxicating and mixing two different substances."

Mr Le Brun says a referendum on recreational use of cannabis presents a very obvious question: "What the hell are they gonna do about medical cannabis?"

He says while he hopes it's a foregone conclusion that medical use will be legalised along with personal, he has his doubts over whether a Labour-led Government will support the kind of change Green voters are anticipating.

"Labour is hollow on this issue. They say nice things and have zero policy. They refer to Damien O'Connor's private member's Bill [on legalising cannabis use for terminally ill patients] which is a waste of time," Mr Le Brun said.

"We already have medical cannabis here for the terminally ill, it's just bloody expensive.

"The challenge is, are Labour and New Zealand First actually going to support [Green MP] Julie Anne [Genter's] Bill that'd let people grow cannabis at home, or are they gonna go down a different path?"

Family First NZ national director Bob McCoskrie says the announcement of a referendum on personal cannabis use is "stunning hypocrisy" for a party that only wants the public's view on "the questions that they ask and the results that they like".

"This is the same party that rejected the voice of New Zealanders when they sent a clear message on the anti-smacking law in 2009 - 87 percent of New Zealanders voting against the law," he said.

"The Greens also voted against having a referendum on the hugely controversial issue of changing the definition of marriage when the views of the country were clearly split down the middle.

"If the Greens want to show consistency and they want a binding referendum on marijuana, then they should acknowledge and respect the result of the smacking law referendum."