New Zealand will vote next year on whether it will become the newest country to allow the legal purchase, possession, and use of recreational cannabis.
While we’ve known for some time that the cannabis referendum is coming, it wasn’t clear what the question would be. The government just released the question and the draft legislation on December 3rd. The referendum will ask,
“Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?”
New Zealanders will answer either “Yes, I support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill” or “No, I do not support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill”
This is a big deal for the cannabis industry. Recreational marijuana is currently legal for use in only four countries: Canada, Georgia, South Africa, and Uruguay. Of those, selling marijuana is still prohibited in South Africa and Georgia.
That means that New Zealand’s population of 5 million could become the second-largest legal market for recreational marijuana in the world, after Canada. (1) It would also be the first country to legalize marijuana by referendum.
This post will tell you everything you need to know about the New Zealand cannabis referendum: the timeline, the legal details, and what would happen if the referendum passed.
2020 New Zealand Cannabis Referendum
The origin of the referendum was the 2017 general election, when the Green Party promised that, if they were to form government, they would legalize marijuana.
No party won enough seats to form government. The Labour Party managed to negotiate a deal with two other parties, the Green Party and the New Zealand First Party, for enough support to govern. The Green Party negotiated as part of that agreement the requirement that the government have a referendum on marijuana “at, or by, the 2020 general election.”
In May 2019, the government released some details about the referendum, but not the actual question.
The question, along with the draft bill that would legalize marijuana, was just released this past week.
About the Referendum
When will it be?
The referendum will occur with the next general election. General elections normally occur every three years in New Zealand, and the next one must be called by the government on or before November 21, 2020. Since the government has not yet called the election, it’s not clear exactly when the referendum will be.
What is in the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?
The draft legislation is designed to regulate the supply and use of cannabis in such a way as to promote the well being of New Zealanders and reduce the harms associated with using cannabis.
As well as creating an oversight and regulation body for cannabis, the bill has the following core elements:
- It sets the minimum legal age at 20 years old. This age is used for all regulations about growing, possessing, purchasing, and using cannabis.
- It legalizes the growth of cannabis. Adults can have up to two plants. If there is more than 1 adult in a household, they can grow up to 4 plants. Cannabis must be grown out of public sight and must be inaccessible to the public. Businesses will be able to apply for a license to grow more than this amount.
- It legalizes possession of cannabis. Adults can have up to 14 grams of dried cannabis (or equivalent) in public (more is allowed if it is being transported).
- It legalizes the purchase of cannabis. Adults can purchase up to 14 grams of cannabis a day.
- It legalizes the sharing of cannabis. Adults can give or share cannabis with others as long as they are also over 20, the amount is less than 14 grams, and they do not gain a material benefit from it (for example, the sharing cannot be in exchange for money). Basically, you cannot sell cannabis without a license.
- It legalizes and restricts, the consumption of cannabis. Cannabis cannot be consumed in a public place or in a vehicle. Some premises can obtain a license so that cannabis can be consumed in them (such as bars and cafes). However, other legislation prohibits smoking in certain places. It is likely that cannabis will only be able to be smoked in well-ventilated areas, like patios.
- It legalizes and restricts, the sale of cannabis. Cannabis can only be sold by those with permits (organizations will be able to apply for these permits if the legislation passes). Supplying cannabis by mail or courier is prohibited (attention online marijuana businesses!).
- It legalizes the importation of cannabis. Importation of cannabis is only allowed for those who hold a license.
- It legalizes the production of cannabis. Extracting resins from cannabis and producing cannabis concentrates is allowed only by those who hold a license. This license is not necessary to make cannabis-infused products.
There are also a number of regulations in the bill on businesses that plan to sell cannabis products. These include rules about how to apply for licenses, regulations around advertising cannabis products and health messages, the use of trademarks, distribution of cannabis products, responsibilities of managers and employees, and so on.
It is important to note that the bill is still a draft. Even if the referendum passes, these features of the bill could change as they are passed through parliament.
Will the New Zealand cannabis referendum pass?
It’s not clear, but it looks like it will.
The most recent poll, conducted by Horizon, surveyed 1,199 adult New Zealanders and found 48% said that they would vote for legalizing cannabis, while 38% said that they would vote against. 14% said they had no opinion. The poll has a margin of error of 3.1%.
This represents a rise of 9% since the last poll conducted by Horizon in August, when 39% said they would vote for it, and 47% said they would vote against. However, it is down from 52% recorded in April, and 60% in November 2018.
It could go either way, but it looks like public opinion favours legalization of cannabis.
If the referendum passes, it’s not clear what’s next because the referendum is not binding.
A binding referendum requires the government to implement it. A non-binding referendum is one in which the government is not required to act on it.
The government has said this referendum is binding. They have indicated that if more than 50% of voters support legalization, the government will follow through on the process to enact the legislation. If more than 50% of individuals vote no, the current laws will remain and recreational marijuana will remain illegal.
However, there is some uncertainty around the legislation even if more than 50% of New Zealanders vote yes. That’s partly because the referendum occurs at the same time as the general election, and we don’t know who the next government will be.
Every party that currently makes up government (the Labour Party, the Green Party, and the New Zealand First Party) has committed to working to pass the legislation if the referendum passes. So, if the election returns a similar result to last time, the government would likely work to pass the legislation.
However, it is unclear whether the National Party, the other major political party, would respect the results if they formed government after the election.
The future government may choose not to table the draft legislation for a vote in parliament. Or, even it is tabled, a lot can happen during the process for a bill to become legislation. It could undergo significant changes or even be voted down.
In other words, even if the referendum passes, there is some uncertainty about whether the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill would ultimately become law. The earliest the bill could be passed by parliament is likely mid 2021.
New Zealand stands to become the newest country to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. The government’s recent release of the 2020 cannabis referendum question and the accompanying draft Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill gives the public a sense of what that legalization could look like. It sets the stage for recreational cannabis to become legal by 2021.
While there is some uncertainty about what could happen even with a majority of voters supporting legalization, the New Zealand cannabis referendum is a signal that the world is becoming a little more cannabis-friendly.
(1) Of course, 11 U.S. states, 2 territories, and the District of Columbia have all legalized recreational marijuana, but it is still illegal at the Federal level. The Trump administration has also made it clear recently that they, unlike the Obama administration, are prepared to prosecute cannabis users, physicians who prescribe it, and those who sell it—-even in states where it is legal. So, while some states do have legalized marijuana, there is still significant legal risk in selling it.