Cannabis referendum risks being New Zealand's Brexit - National's Simon Bridges

National leader Simon Bridges is urging Kiwis to oppose cannabis legalisation, saying next year's referendum risks being New Zealand's Brexit.

On Tuesday, Justice Minister Andrew Little revealed the proposed recreational cannabis scheme that will be put to New Zealanders at a referendum alongside the 2020 general election. A draft of the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill suggests a minimum purchase age of 20, a ban on marketing or advertising cannabis products and not allowing consumption in public areas. 

A Cannabis Regulatory Authority would also be created with a range of functions, including to license and authorise controlled activities, monitoring compliance, and developing good practise guidelines.

But Bridges, the National Party leader, says there are still too many unanswered questions about the scheme and how it would be enforced. He told The AM Show much of the work would need to be done after the referendum if legalisation was supported.

"There are so many unanswered questions. This has the risk of being New Zealand's Brexit, right, where we have to backfill and work out the answers of the hard questions," he said on Wednesday.

Bridges has three main questions that he doesn't believe the proposed scheme addresses. 

The first is about the tax rate, with Bridges saying the Government needs to find the right balance in order to ensure cannabis isn't too accessible, but also isn't too expensive that it goes underground.

"Make no mistake, if it is gangs now and corporates after, this is all about money. You set [tax rates] too high and you keep a black market and gangs peddling drugs.

"You put it too low and you are effectively incentivising cannabis over other legal drugs at the moment - like tobacco and drink."

The draft Bill does contain a section for "excise tax", but doesn't provide any specific rates. One function of the Cannabis Regulatory Authority is to administer and collect excise taxes, levies, and fees. 

The excise tax will be "applied to fresh cannabis at the point of production based on weight and potency [and] on a progressive basis, according to potency levels". For example, the higher the Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content - the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis - the higher the tax.

But Bridges also wants to know what THC levels will be allowed. Under the draft Bill, that will be something set by the Cannabis Regulatory Authority. 

"That is incredibly important. That is the buzz. This is not like the 80s, where it was sorta 3 percent. It can be as high as 27, 30 percent. You gotta be really careful about that with the mental health and psychosis issues that go with that," Bridges said.

Finally, Bridges is also concerned there is little information about how the Government or any newly-created agency would deal with drug-driving.

Cannabis referendum risks being New Zealand's Brexit - National's Simon Bridges
Photo credit: The AM Show / Getty.

He says these questions should have been answered and Kiwis are going into the referendum without all the information.

"I say to New Zealanders, given [the unanswered questions], a bit like Brexit, I reckon you have got a duty, even if you are in principle in favour of this, to chuck this out, because the Government hasn't shown you what the regime will be post-referendum."

Brexit refers to Britain's exit from the European Union (EU) which was spurred on by a referendum in 2016. The British Government has spent the last three years trying to negotiate and pass a comprehensive deal setting out how this would happen.

Bridges told The AM Show that if National gained power in 2020 and the referendum did pass, his Government "would take account of that".

"I always have a basic view that I want to respect the will of the people."

Bridges will discuss the Bill with his caucus before deciding on a clear position of how his Government would react.

Proposed scheme

A website was also launched on Tuesday providing information on the legislation in the lead up to the election. 

Little wants to encourage public awareness and discussion and has invited representatives from each parliamentary party to meet with him on Thursday to provide feedback.

Key points of the proposed cannabis law:

  • a minimum purchase age of 20
  • a ban on marketing and advertising cannabis products
  • a requirement to include harm minimisation messaging on cannabis products
  • not allowing recreational cannabis to be consumed in public and only in licenced places
  • limiting the sale of recreational cannabis to physical stores
  • controls on the potency of recreational cannabis being sold
  • a state licencing regime for recreational cannabis controlled by the Government

If the legislation passed, anyone aged 20 years or older could grow up to two cannabis plants. If two people aged 20 years or older are part of the same household, the property can have up to four plants. If you grow more than you're allowed, you could be fined up to $1000. Cannabis must also be grown out of public sight.

People could hold 14 grams of dried cannabis in a public place - the same amount that could be purchased from a licensed store.

Newshub Political Editor Tova O'Brien told The AM Show that there were many sticking points that the National Party will want more information on or to see changed, such as how much cannabis one person can have.

"They want a much smaller amount available for sale on a daily basis. Some of the other sticking points will be edibles. The Bill allows for cannabis-infused products, but we don't know exactly what yet. Paula Bennett and the National Party certainly don't want gummy bears and other edibles out there that could be more available or appealing to children," O'Brien said.

"Also some of the stuff around drug-driving and the tax regime that is yet to be worked out yet as well."

O'Brien said the debate around legalisation seemed to be more mature and praised the Government for the release of information about it before the referendum.

"On things like this, which are so contentious, I think we are having a much more grown-up conversation about it now.

"I think it is responsible of the Government to put out this legislation earlier enough so people can make a decision or know what they are dealing with leading into the election and that referendum question."

She said the select committee process will be really important in sorting out the specifics of the Bill.

Cannabis reform organisation NORML was full of praise for the Bill on Tuesday.

"We welcome the detail and appreciate the work that has gone into this," said NORML spokesperson Chris Fowlie. 

"The public of New Zealand needs to know what they will be voting on, and to have time to consider it properly.

"In particular, we welcome the focus on consumer safety. It's also heartening to see the commitment to running a public education campaign in the lead up to the referendum." 

NORML did, however, say the Bill didn't include "anything about social equity, expunging cannabis records, or encouraging local craft growers over booze-owned foreign corporates".

The New Zealand Drug Foundation also welcomed the draft Bill, especially that the cannabis tax levy would "allocate funds for drug education and treatment programmes".

It expects the Government to release the full Bill early next year "so voters can be assured they will have the information they need to reach an informed opinion".

A Newshub-Reid Research Poll revealed in June that 48 percent of New Zealanders did not agree with legalising cannabis, while 41.7 percent of people thought it should be legalised, and 10.4 percent didn't know.