Cannabis referendum: What is it, when is it, where each party and the public stands

Kiwis will get the chance to vote on an issue later this year that has divided the country for decades: whether recreational cannabis should be legalised in New Zealand.

The issue of cannabis use has been keenly debated for some time - but now, after years of hounding by activists and tactful politicking by the Green Party, New Zealanders will finally get their say in September.

Here's everything you need to know about our upcoming cannabis legalisation and control referendum.

What is a referendum?

In New Zealand, a referendum is a public vote on a particular question.

Referenda can be initiated by a citizen or by the Government. In the case of the cannabis referendum, it's the Government that has initiated it.

What's this referendum about exactly?

The referendum is a vote on whether the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill - which sets out a way for the Government to control and regulate cannabis - should become part of New Zealand's legislation.

The result of the vote will determine if the recreational use of cannabis becomes legal, and will affect how people can produce, supply and consume cannabis.

The Bill's main purpose is to reduce cannabis-related harm, an objective that will be overseen by a new regulatory body: the Cannabis Regulation Authority.

Cannabis referendum: What is it, when is it, where each party and the public stands

The exact wording of the referendum question is: "Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?"

Kiwis will be able to answer 'yes' or 'no' to that question - however, even if more than 50 percent of voters in the referendum vote 'yes', recreational cannabis would not be legalised immediately.

Following the 2020 election, a Bill would be introduced in Parliament that would legalise and control cannabis - a process that would again invite the public to have their say on how the new laws might work.

Under the Bill, licensed cannabis products would become available in stages, starting with dried and fresh cannabis, cannabis plants, and cannabis seeds.

If more than 50 percent of people vote 'no', our recreational cannabis laws will remain the same.

Referendum votes will not be counted on election night, the Government says. Preliminary referendum results will be released by the Electoral Commission on October 2, with official results released a week later on October 9.

How did this referendum come about?

This referendum was thought up by the Greens several years ago, in the lead-up to the 2017 general election.

The party in December 2016 vowed to legalise personal cannabis use if it formed part of the Government. Fast-forward to the aftermath of the election, and the Greens made good on their promise.

Labour signed a confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party, with one of their conditions that the Government would hold a referendum on "legalising the personal use of cannabis at, or by, the 2020 general election".

Under the proposed laws, Kiwis would be able to cook pot brownies, but edible gummies would remain out of the question.
Under the proposed laws, Kiwis would be able to cook pot brownies, but edible gummies would remain out of the question. Photo credit: AAP

New Zealand's laws dictate the Government must pass legislation to enable a referendum to be held, unless the referendum is conducted by postal vote. The wording of the referendum question is decided as part of the legislative process.

Green Party drug reform spokesperson Chloe Swarbrick has been leading the charge for the referendum since the election result.

What would be allowed if the Bill comes into force?

The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill would allow people to possess and consume cannabis in limited circumstances, the Government says.

It would allow a person aged 20 or over to:

  • Buy up to 14 grams of dried cannabis (or its equivalent) per day from licensed outlets.

  • Enter licensed premises where cannabis is sold or consumed.

  • Consume cannabis on private property or at a licensed premise.

  • Grow up to two plants, with a maximum of four plants per household.

  • Share up to 14 grams of dried cannabis (or its equivalent) with another person aged 20 or over.

What do our current cannabis laws allow?

At the moment, possession of cannabis is illegal in New Zealand under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.

Those caught in possession of up to 28 grams of cannabis can face three months' prison or a fine of up to $500.

More than 28 grams is presumed to be for supply purposes, which carries a potential penalty of seven years in jail. Cannabis dealing carries a maximum penalty of eight years' imprisonment.

The number of Kiwis being found guilty of cannabis-related crimes has fallen all but one year over the last decade.
The number of Kiwis being found guilty of cannabis-related crimes has fallen all but one year over the last decade. Photo credit: Newshub.

Cannabis-based medication can be legally prescribed by a specialist physician, but this is subject to stringent criteria. Only one cannabis-based pharmaceutical, Sativex, is approved for use in New Zealand.

An amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2018 provides a legal defence for terminally ill people who are caught possessing or using cannabis.

Would Kiwis still get in trouble for using cannabis?

Punishments would be in place for Kiwis who broke the new cannabis rules.

Fines for public cannabis use could still reach as high as $500, depending on the nature of the offence, while those who deal or supply cannabis to people under 20 or grow more than the allotted number of plants would face prison time.

What doesn't the referendum cover?

The referendum will have no effect on a slew of issues already covered in New Zealand's existing cannabis laws.

These include anything to do with hemp, medicinal cannabis, driving while impaired or workplace health and safety issues caused by cannabis use.

Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, medicinal use of cannabis will still be permitted if prescribed by a doctor and hemp will still be legal.

What does it mean that it's a 'non-binding' referendum?

Government-initiated referendums can be 'binding' or 'indicative'. Indicative means the Government does not have to act on the outcome of the referendum.

The cannabis legalisation and control referendum is indicative, although all parties bar National have vowed to pass the Bill in Parliament if New Zealand votes for it.

One example of an indicative referendum was the citizen-initiated corporal punishment vote of 2009, when 87.4 percent of respondents answered 'no' to the question: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

Despite the result of the referendum, the Government did not change its anti-smacking laws.

New Zealanders opted to stick with our current flag design back in 2016.
New Zealanders opted to stick with our current flag design back in 2016. Photo credit: Getty

A binding referendum is when the Government must act on and implement the outcome of the vote - for example, the flag referendum of 2015-2016.

When Kiwis voted to keep the current flag, rather than replace it with a Kyle Lockwood-designed silver fern flag, Prime Minister John Key had to honour New Zealand's vote despite it going against his personal views.

The End of Life Choice referendum, which Kiwis will have the opportunity to vote on at the same time as the cannabis referendum, is binding.

How do I vote in the referendum?

The cannabis legalisation and control referendum will be held alongside the general election and the End of Life Choice referendum on September 19, 2020.

When you go to vote, you will be given one voting paper for the election, and another for the referendums. You must be eligible and enrolled to vote to have your say.

If you're in New Zealand, you'll be able to vote when advance voting starts on September 5. If you'll be overseas at the time, you can vote from overseas from September 2.

Where does the public stand?

A Newshub-Reid Research poll conducted in February 2020 found New Zealand was pretty evenly split on the issue of cannabis legalisation - 39.4 percent said they'd vote 'yes' in the referendum, while 47.7 percent would vote 'no' and 11.6 percent didn't know.

This slight win for the nay-sayers has been reflected in other polls, including one carried out by Horizon Research in August 2019 that showed near-identical results.

However opinion polls and surveys have been back and forth. More recent polls by Horizon suggest momentum is swinging back in the favour of those pushing for reform.

"Support has climbed back up over the past six months," says Paul Manning, chief executive of Helius Therapeutics, the medicinal cannabis reseearch company that commissioned the polls.

"This referendum may be closer than most pundits probably think, with party turnout critical and messaging also set to play an important role in the end result."

A recent survey by Horizon Research shows nearly three-quarters of Māori support legalising the personal use of cannabis.

Where does each party stand?

The Greens, who are a driving force behind legalising cannabis, are firmly in favour of personal cannabis use reforms.

For the majority of other parties, however, a clear stance on the issue is hard to come by.

ACT Party leader David Seymour said in 2017 that he too would legalise cannabis if it were up to him, but doubted New Zealand would go for it. Meanwhile Winston Peters' New Zealand First party have historically called for "attitudes which encourage, rather than attack the abuse of drugs".

National and Labour - New Zealand's two largest parties - have no clear policy or messaging around the issue, although National's support base seems to be largely against reform. Former deputy leader Paula Bennett was firmly against cannabis legalisation.