How Cannabis Made the Ballot in New Zealand

| Andrew Ward

New Zealand citizens will head to the polls on September 19, 2020 to determine the country’s stance on adult use cannabis reform. 

While the prospects have many eager for the outcome, those in New Zealand aren’t so certain on its passage. That said, if it were to become law, New Zealand could become the new example of establishing a fair and equitable cannabis market. 

How Cannabis Made the Ballot

A spokesperson for the Right Honourable Trevor Mallard, Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives, did not elaborate on the bill’s development for StratCann. However, Mallard and others did credit the work of the Green and Labour Party, which began a few years earlier. Both parties approved the agreement to advance the effort in its confidence and supply agreement. 

Auckland-based Defense Barrister Tudor Clee explained how the union, of sorts, came to be. “The Labour Party doesn’t have an absolute majority. So, it requires the support of several minor parties to govern. This includes The Green Party.” 

The defense barrister explained how cannabis came into the equation. “The referendum is a small concession for Labour and a major coup for the Greens.”

The Green Party offered its support to Labour under a set of policies aimed around a sustainable economy, a healthy environment and a fair society. Cannabis found itself under the Fair Society section. It states: 

Increase funding for alcohol and drug addiction services and ensure drug use is treated as a health issue, and have a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at, or by, the 2020 general election.

David Brighton is the head of content for the cannabis cultivation website Bud Informer and a New Zealand citizen. Brighton told StratCann that the referendum “has actually been a long time coming,” as the Confidence and Supply Agreement between the parties had been signed in 2017. 

Yet, despite the wait, the referendum will be making it onto the 2020 ballot.

A Referendum Overview 

The referendum presents voters with a straightforward choice: do you or do you not support the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill? 

The nature of the question does not, however, address the parameters of the law, of which there are many that come with establishing a national legal framework for anything, especially cannabis.

The proposed bill delves into the rights adults aged 20 and over would be permitted. They include a 14 gram per day purchasing cap on dried cannabis or its equivalents. Adults will also be allowed to consume cannabis on private property and at licensed premises. Back at home, adults would be permitted to grow up to two plants for themselves, or four for an entire household. The bill also aims to control the cannabis production and supply chain, instituting maximums on business licenses and product potency. If approved, the market would also include an undisclosed excise tax on products.

Many areas of concern were not discussed in the bill, including medical marijuana, hemp, impaired driving, as well as workplace health and safety issues. These areas were omitted, as previous bills were directed at such subjects.

A key standout in the proposed referendum puts New Zealand in a position to be the first nation to adequately consider its Indigeneous population by assessing how the legal market can improve their lives. If approved, New Zealand’s legal adult use marketplace could find itself creating change that Canada and many U.S. state markets failed to do so. 

First Nations members in Canada often report feeling dissatisfied with how the market works for them. Jack McDonald of the NZ Drug Foundation went to Vancouver in December 2018 to attend the Assembly of First Nations Cannabis Summit. There, McDonald was told first-hand of how First Nations members feel left out, including Chief Perry Bellegarde. 

After speaking with the Chief, McDonald summarized the immense pain points First Nations face when attempting to enter the cannabis space. In his piece, McDonald wrote: 

Regardless of exactly why it happened, the result is that there are no specific mechanisms in the Cannabis Act 2018 for indigenous involvement in the legal market, except for the possibility of further negotiation with provincial governments. The priority now is to try to reform the Act so that it recognises First Nations jurisdiction.

That said, even if voters were to pass the legislation, it does not ensure that New Zealand will go forward with the efforts, as Bud Informer’s Brighton puts it. “This referendum is non-binding, which means the result of the referendum isn’t guaranteed to turn into law.”

What’s the Likely Outcome?

No one appears certain as to how the vote will be decided. 

Data provided by Rt Hon Mallard’s office provided support for both outcomes. A 31 March 2020 survey of 2,000 New Zealanders found that 83% did not believe that the current prohibition is working. Furthermore, 54% of respondents said they would vote for the bill, with 45% opposing. On the other hand, a 14 February poll conducted on behalf of 1 NEWS found 51% of respondents believing the measure would not pass. 

Defense barrister Clee is another person unsure of the outcome. Clee, who couldn’t recall a cannabis possession case reaching court in years, is not sure that New Zealanders are ready to pass such legislation. Confusion may stem from online sentiments, he said. 

“The legalize movement is social media savvy,” stated the defense barrister. “So, it seems like ‘everyone’ is on board with it. However, the young progressive demographic they appeal to seldom materialize on election day.” Clee delved into a possible opposition lying in wait. “On the other hand, there is a silent minority of conservatives who are reliable voters and may tip the balance by simply turning up.”

Facing an uncertain outcome at the polls, New Zealanders and the rest of the world await the results this September. If passed, New Zealand could become the new standard-bearer in inclusive legislation. The bill could prove to other nations, including Canada, how Indigenous people should be included in legal cannabis programs. 

That said, all bets are off with the vote being non-binding. One way or another, keep an eye out on New Zealand in the months to come.