Legalising cannabis in New Zealand: Lessons from Canada

With the prospect of a cannabis referendum hot on the Government's agenda, ministers could look to Canada for lessons on how legalisation might look in New Zealand.

Canada became the second nation after Uruguay to legalise recreational cannabis in late 2018, following the country's Parliament passing the Cannabis Act in June.

It's been lucrative, with cannabis stores bringing in CA$43 million (NZ$48.5 million) in the two weeks after legalisation, according to Statistics Canada.

But the same agency recently reported the number of Canadians using it for the first time had nearly doubled since it was legalised in October, going against the law's stated purpose to "prevent youth from accessing cannabis".

The National Cannabis Survey, which covered the first quarter of 2019, found that some 646,000 Canadians said they had tried the drug for the first time - almost twice as many as the 327,000 in the same period in 2018.

MPs will be questioning whether legalising recreational use is the most sensible approach, with Ministry of Health figures showing youth rates of cannabis usage are on the rise. 

But with the current high rates of youth cannabis use, New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell says he's confident that a regulatory approach would "give us better options to protect young people".

"The Canadians always said that they would expect the spike at the start. And now that it's legal, people, when asked those questions, are more willing to be honest."

How legalisation could affect New Zealand

The National Party published on Sunday four options presented in a leaked Cabinet paper outlining how the Government will consider the 2020 cannabis referendum, promised to the Greens.

They include a simple non-binding question of whether voters support legalising recreational cannabis, or a non-binding question, accompanied by a policy framework document of how legalisation would work.

It also presented the option of a non-binding question accompanied by draft legislation, as well as a binding question accompanied by legislation already passed that would become law if the public voted 'yes'.

NZ Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell.
NZ Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell. Photo credit: The AM Show

Bell told Newshub there is "a lot" the Government can learn from Canada and the way it went about legalising recreational cannabis, since it was the first developed Western nation to do it nationwide - unlike the US, which has legalised it only in some states.

The difference between Canada and New Zealand is that in the former, it never went to a public vote. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government introduced the legislation in 2017, and the Canadian Senate had the final say.

But Trudeau had campaigned on legalising and regulating cannabis, promising to legalise, regulate, and restrict it if he was elected. 

People aged 18 or older (in some provinces 19) can now possess up to 30 grams of cannabis in Canada, and each household is allowed to grow up to four cannabis plants, although Quebec and Manitoba chose to be excluded from that aspect of the legislation.

Bell said New Zealand too should consider allowing some regions to "have different models", instead of one nationwide law. "For example, they've got slightly different ages in different provinces." 

But in terms of the overall approach to legalisation, he said New Zealand can learn from Canada's controls around advertising, as well as taxation and cultivation standards.

Where Canada got it wrong, he said, is around social justice. He said the Canadian government hasn't factored in communities that were involved in the black market, and have been impacted by the previous punitive approach.

He said New Zealand could look at whether iwi, for example, should be given "preferential licenses" so that they could help proactively move members of their communities out of the black market into the legal market.

A man celebrating recreational cannabis legalisation in Toronto.
A man celebrating recreational cannabis legalisation in Toronto. Photo credit: Getty

What should the legal age be?

The Government will also have to consider what the legal age of recreational use will be.

National drug reform spokesperson Paula Bennett has criticised the leaked Cabinet paper's recommended age of 20.

"The Cabinet paper is clear that smoking marijuana when you're under the age of 25 is detrimental for development of the brain, and yet it recommends that the legal age should be 20. The legal age seems to have been plucked out of thin air," she said.

Ross said there are arguments on either side for setting an age of 20. He said looking at the science around adolescent brain development, having a higher age could help protect younger people.

But if the legal age is 20, people 19 and below will miss out on public health protections and instead have to access cannabis from the criminal black market.

"The science around the impact of alcohol on developing brains is even stronger [than cannabis], so is National then going to support rising the age of alcohol?" asked Ross.

"We can be informed around that science of developing brains, and that can help us set an age, but there are lots of other things to consider as well."

Ross said "something around 18, 19 or 20" would be reasonable.