Cannabis referendum: How legal regulation of cannabis can benefit New Zealand

The cannabis referendum is fast approaching, and although 48 percent of New Zealanders support its legalisation according to a new poll, many have yet to formulate an understanding of the Bill and what it proposes. 

The latest poll, released by the Helen Clark Foundation and the New Zealand Drug Foundation, found that 48 percent of its 1128 participants - aged 18 and over - are in favour of cannabis legalisation, while 43 percent are opposed. 

Speaking to The AM Show on Wednesday, NZ Drug Foundation chief executive Ross Bell said there is still a large number of undecided voters - and ultimately, the outcome of the referendum will fall in their hands. 

Come September, voters will be asked this question: Do you support the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill? It's fairly straightforward - but as noted by The AM Show host Duncan Garner, it's easy to assume that a significant number of Kiwis will not read the Bill before attending a voting station.

Bell says the lack of public information is problematic leading up to the referendum, but noted that more educational and informative material is becoming available. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister's chief science advisor, Juliet Gerrard, released a report examining the evidence of health-related and social harm that could be caused by cannabis legalisation.

Bell says it's crucial that undecided voters take the time to read the proposed legislation and these additional reports to make an informed decision.

"Once those undecided voters learn about what's in the Bill - a lot of people at the moment think legalisation in some kind of free-for-all - [but] once they learn about the really strong controls that have been put into the Bill, they are more likely to support a law change."

Benefits of cannabis legalisation

Although Bell acknowledges there are "no health benefits" associated with smoking cannabis - "the safest drug use, we say, is no drug use at all" - he argues that legal regulation will reduce harm associated with young people and drug use. 

For one, the Bill has proposed that a person must be 20 or older to possess or purchase marijuana, making it illegal for the teen demographic to use the drug. 

If anyone under 20 is caught with cannabis, they may face a fine or will be ordered to complete a drug education programme. A key element of the Bill - to reduce cannabis-related harm to people and communities - includes making sure the response to any breach of the law is fair. 

The Bill also intends to eliminate the illegal supply of cannabis and improve access to health and social services for families and whānau.

The legislation also proposes that tax on cannabis will be redistributed into harm reduction, health and drug education programmes - a benefit that will positively impact struggling youth.

"If we're worried about young New Zealanders, we're going to have a much better chance at reducing that harm under legal regulation... there's essentially a decriminalisation element built into the Bill.

"There's proper interventions built into the law that are going to protect young New Zealanders. Right now, what protections do we [have] in place? We simply leave it in the hands of organised crime to control cannabis."

Other restrictions in the proposed legislation include a ban on all marketing and advertising of cannabis products - limiting its public visibility - and strict controls on marijuana quality and potency.

As outlined in Tuesday's report, Canada - which legalised cannabis less than two years ago - has seen the most significant increase in usage in the 65 and over age bracket. There was a slight rise in adult consumption following its legalisation, however youth consumption saw no increase - with cannabis use in teens aged 15 to 17 decreasing by more than 50 percent.

Data from Canada also shows that roughly 50 percent of cannabis users are buying from the legal market. 

"I'm not going to tell you legislation is 100 percent perfect," Bell said. "But it's so much better than what we currently have."

The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill

According to the referendum's official Government website, the Bill sets out a way for the Government to control and regulate cannabis. It proposes rules for growing, selling, buying and consuming cannabis.

The Bill's main purpose is to reduce cannabis-related harm to individuals, families/whānau and communities.

If cannabis is legalised, New Zealanders aged 20 or over would be able to:

  • buy cannabis, but only from businesses with a licence to sell cannabis
  • enter licensed premises where cannabis is sold or consumed
  • consume cannabis at a home or at licensed premises
  • purchase up to 14 grams of dried cannabis (or its equivalent) per day
  • share up to 14 grams of dried cannabis (or its equivalent) with another person aged 20 or over.

Medicinal cannabis and hemp will not be affected by the outcome of the referendum. Medicinal use of cannabis will still be permitted if prescribed by a doctor, and hemp will still be legal.