Cannabis referendum: Chlöe Swarbrick, Duncan Garner's heated exchange over decriminalisation vs regulation

Chlöe Swarbrick and Duncan Garner have engaged in a heated back-and-forth over regulation versus decriminalisation of recreational cannabis, with just five days left for New Zealanders to vote on the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.

The Green MP shut down the The AM Show host's repeated attempts to poke holes in her argument, standing firm that the crux of the matter lies in the legal regulation of sale and supply.

Swarbrick has repeatedly urged New Zealanders not to conflate pro-legalisation with supporting cannabis use, as recent polls indicate slipping support for the 'vote yes' campaign.

While non-binding, the incumbent Government is expected to legalise recreational use of cannabis if reelected and the vote passes - National has said it may shelve the bill if the select committee advises against passing it.

However, the Bill would also introduce a regulatory framework to implement restrictions on the sale and supply of cannabis - including limitations on age, potency and possession - rather than the current black market free-for-all.

"I'm often mischaracterised on this. I'm not an advocate for cannabis, I'm an advocate for a legal, regulatory framework for cannabis," she told The AM Show on Tuesday morning.

"A 'no' vote is a vote to continue cannabis' existence in the criminal black market... a 'no' vote doesn't get rid of cannabis... a 'yes' vote gives us a regulatory framework that reduces harm and increases community wellbeing and restricts usage among young people.

"A 'no' vote shuts down this dialogue for another generation."

Swarbrick is a prominent advocate for legalisation.
Swarbrick is a prominent advocate for legalisation. Photo credit: Getty

Garner argued that pushing for decriminalisation could have been a suitable option, to which Swarbrick hit back that the removal of criminal penalties for cannabis offences would still leave the prevalent drug illegal and unregulated.

"Decriminalisation simply removes criminal penalties for the people who use the substance," she said.

"Is adding another drug to the mix, legalising another drug, going to better this country?" Garner asked.

"Right now anybody in this country, if they want to get their hands on cannabis, can," Swarbrick shot back. "This is about putting controls and regulations around that to reduce that usage and inform people of the harm."

A common anti-legalisation argument is that legalisation pushes the wrong message, indicating it's acceptable for New Zealanders to use cannabis recreationally. Alternatively, decriminalisation means the legal system would not be able to prosecute a person for cannabis-related offences, such as possession or consumption, freeing up roughly $300 million per year in funding towards policing and enforcement - but does not legalise the drug.

"Legalising something says, 'okay, here it is, it's okay, and by the way, the shop's around the corner'," Garner pressed, adding that legalisation will not eliminate the black market nor put an end to people using it to get past the restrictions. 

Swarbrick referenced Canada's success - the second country in the world to legalise and regulate cannabis - at securing control of 50 percent of all sale and supply within two years.

"After two years in Canada they have managed to get control of half of sale and supply," she shot back. "Two years."

She also drew parallels between the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill and New Zealand's quest to reduce smoking prevalence and tobacco availability by 2025. Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 proposed enabling limits on the supply of tobacco, removing advertising and sponsorship, and providing increased support and education - restrictions that cannot be implemented for cannabis while it remains illegal.

"Do we know the extra health cost for District Health Boards around the country?" Garner asked.

"Duncan, you are grabbing at straws here, because this problem - as you've just stipulated - exists right now," she said.

"Anybody in this country gets access to cannabis, 80 percent of New Zealanders will use it by the age of 21."

The Bill proposes a regulatory framework where it would be legal for Kiwis aged 20 and over to possess up to 14 grams of cannabis.
The Bill proposes a regulatory framework where it would be legal for Kiwis aged 20 and over to possess up to 14 grams of cannabis. Photo credit: Getty

As part of the cannabis referendum, Kiwis will be asked whether they support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, and can vote 'yes' or 'no'.

The regulatory framework proposes making cannabis possession and recreational use legal for New Zealanders aged 20 and over, and would allow people to buy 14 grams - roughly half an ounce - per day, or grow two cannabis plants.

The quality of the cannabis would also be Government-regulated, ensuring the plant is not laced with other drugs or chemicals, and would also control its THC potency. People could only purchase cannabis legally from licensed suppliers.

It's estimated that legalising cannabis could generate additional tax revenues of $185m to $240m per year.