New Zealand Govt to hold cannabis referendum

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The new Labour-led government has agreed to hold a binding referendum on legalising cannabis by or at the next election in 2020, writes NORML president Chris Fowlie.

After years of denial and obfuscation by the National-led Government, this is a massive opportunity. The world is watching.

The referendum is part of the deal between Labour and the Green Party. An email to party members said:

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.

The Green Party policy is also to treat cannabis as a health issue not a crime, legalise personal use, home growing, and medical cannabis.

The Greens also want to move towards a regulated market like we see in many places overseas such as Canada, Colorado and several other US states, Spain and the Netherlands.

Holding a referendum on cannabis has long been the New Zealand First position.

It seems Winston Peters allowed the Greens to have a cannabis win as part of their confidence and supply deal with Labour, as long as it was his policy (holding a referendum) and not theirs (legalising it now). 

Ideally, we should just get on with legalising cannabis now.

In the time taken to run this referendum and then pass any law change, around fifty thousand New Zealanders will be arrested for cannabis, at a cost of around $1.5 billion.

Still, this provides us with a path forward, with a government supporting rather than opposing the process.

Increasing funding for alcohol and drug addiction services is a huge win – although by how much remains to be seen.

Perhaps they will shift funding from the bottomless pit of law enforcement and put resources where they will better help those with drug addiction.

That is certainly implied by the statement “ensure drug use is treated as a health issue”, ie, not a crime.

This points to changes that can be made without or in addition to legislative reform, such as increased use of police diversion, changing sentencing guidelines, allowing harm reduction utensils, or even a moratorium on arrests until the referendum.

The lack of reference to medical cannabis in the agreement is conspicuous but not at this stage any cause for concern – we assume it isn’t there because it is already Labour policy to legalise medical cannabis in the first 100 days of government (ie, Jan/Feb 2018).

While also not in the agreement, Green MP Julie Anne Genter’s medical cannabis bill is likely to be supported by all Labour MPs.

Here’s what you need to know about the cannabis referendum:

It will be binding. Unlike Citizen Initiated Referendums, which are non-binding and have largely been ignored, this referendum will be binding, as is the norm for government-led referendums such as the two for changing the flag and MMP initiated by the previous National-led government.

Don’t fuck it up. If we lose, there goes any chance of meaningful reform for several decades. That’s the rest of your life, fellow Gen X’ers through to baby boomers.

We need to win big . Although 50.1% is technically a win, for legitimacy and longevity we really need a comprehensive winning margin of something like 75%. At least.

It won’t necessarily be Green policy. It could already be decided, but that’s unlikely. What gets put forward might be quite different to what the Green Party policy currently says, depending on the process followed, and especially if the public have any input.

Words make a big difference. The deal reported in the media is a referendum on legalising personal use of cannabis. What will be the exact words? There is a lot of misunderstanding around what words like legalisation and decriminalisation mean, and we know from local polling and overseas campaigns that subtle changes in terminology can make big differences. For example, “make cannabis legal” gets more poll support than “legalise cannabis” even though they mean the same thing. And what does it actually mean in terms of a law change? Logically, if using cannabis is legal they would need to grow their own, or be given it or be able to purchase it. 

Poll all the options, then poll them again. Base the preferred model on what people actually prefer. Use polling to learn what is important to people and what turns them off. Build that into the model, which can be unique for New Zealand while also taking good aspects from what has worked overseas.

Be bold, but don’t overreach. The successful approach used in the US is to go for the model that polls are showing has 65 per cent support, then plan to raise that ten points during the campaign. Anything with less support will face doubts around its legitimacy, and longevity of the policy will not be assured. Anything with much higher support may have been too timid a goal and may represent a missed opportunity for getting what could have been a truly transformational policy.

Support what is better, not perfect. Don’t oppose whatever model emerges simple because it’s not your favourite choice, or it has one feature you don’t like. This is complex and no option will be perfect, but almost anything will be better than what we have now.

It will still be a lot of work. We won’t need to collect 300,000 signatures just to ask the question. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us. We can’t just expect to win. We have to campaign hard, we need to shift and solidify public opinion, we need to anticipate and neutralise the negative campaigning that will come, we need probably five hundred people working on it for the year leading up, and we’ll need a significant amount of money to run any successful campaign. Then presuming we win the referendum, we’ll still need to work to get any law change through parliament.

This will take five to six years. Moving it forward to the census in a few months is not practical, and the census is not a secret ballot so it’s inappropriate for voting especially on matters of crime or morals. With so much misunderstanding and a lack of agreement around what the preferred model should be – even among cannabis law reform circles – it may require a multi-stage process similar to the flag referendum. This involved a period of public consultation followed by expert analysis and a recommended short list, followed by a first referendum of the top four or five contenders (which could be by post, or timed for the local body elections in 2019), and then a final proposal to take to the 2020 referendum. Then a Bill needs to be passed through parliament, including a select committee inquiry and further public submissions. This usually takes 18 months to two years. It is unlikely to be done under urgency as MPs will be wary of making mistakes like they did with the Psychoactive Substances Act. It may then need regulations promulgated to provide interpretation and fine detail. This process can itself take a further two years and require further rounds of public submissions and cabinet papers. Legal wheels turn very slowly!

We’re on the road to cannabis law reform. One step at a time, we will get there. 

 

Media coverage

Radio New Zealand, 20 October 2017: “Cannabis referendum part of Greens’ deal

An email to party members sets out policies the Greens secured in their confidence and supply agreement.

Drug use will be treated as a health issue and there will be an increase in drug and alcohol treatment funding.

Leader James Shaw said it was time to test public opinion on the question of marijuana for personal use.

“After [the late trade unionist] Helen Kelly‘s medicinal cannabis campaign and other moves to move towards a more regulated market model in places like Colorado and Hawaii and some of the states in Canada … it does seem that the public mood has shifted.

“So we thought well maybe it is time to put that to the test,” Mr Shaw said.

Ms Kelly, the former Council of Trade Unions leader, was diagnosed with lung cancer and her attempts to manage led to her battle to get medical cannabis legalised.

NewsTalk ZB, 20 October 2017: “Greens secure referendum on personal cannabis use

A public referendum on legalising cannabis for personal use will be held by the 2020 election as part of the agreement between the Green and Labour parties.

Green Party leader James Shaw said that legalising cannabis had been party policy for 20 years, and the use of the substance should be a health issue, not a criminal justice issue.

“The prohibition model hasn’t work, plus it puts the entire trade into the hands of gangs.

“If you had a regulated market, the same way we do with alcohol and tobacco, you can control the price, advertising, point of sale, quality, and run full public health education campaigns.”

Shaw said public opinion on cannabis use had shifted, and a referendum on the issue by 2020 would be timely.

Stuff/DominionPost, 20 October 2017: “Greens promised referendum on personal cannabis use – Ardern wants national discussion

Incoming Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will work with her Cabinet and take advice before holding a referendum on legalising recreational cannabis.

She said her Executive would decide when the referendum went ahead and was personally open to the discussion. Ardern said there was a need to balance overly harsh criminal sentencing with the drug’s capability to cause harm.

“During the campaign I’ve always been very vocal about the fact that I do not believe people should be imprisoned for the personal use of cannabis. On the flip-side, I also have concerns around young people accessing a product which can clearly do harm and damage to them,” she said.

Ardern made the comments during a press conference to unveil the members of her party who would eventually get ministerial portfolios.

Earlier, an internal Green Party email revealed a raft of policy concessions for the Greens in Government, including a referendum on the full legalisation of the personal use of cannabis

Ardern said she would look for a way through the debate, gauge the mood of the public and look “to find a workable solution”.

A “justice-based” approach to cannabis was not working. The Green Party email suggested the parties would move more rapidly to a health-based approach.

Otago Daily Times, 20 October 2017: “Greens win vote on cannabis use” 

Kiwis will be asked to vote on whether the law surrounding the personal use of cannabis should be changed.

The Green Party has secured the referendum as part of its deal with the incoming Labour-led Government.

An email sent to Green Party delegates and detailing policy gains includes a “referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at, or by, the 2020 general election”.

The Greens campaigned on making cannabis legal for personal use, including possession and cultivation, with a legal age limit for personal use.

They want to assess evidence from overseas jurisdictions with legal cannabis is sold to determine the best model for New Zealand.

“While waiting for broader law change for cannabis, remove penalties for any person with a terminal illness, chronic or debilitating condition to cultivate, possess or use cannabis and/or cannabis products for therapeutic purposes, with the support of a registered medical practitioner”, the policy said.

Green Party leader James Shaw said today that legalising cannabis had been party policy for 20 years, and the use of the substance should be a health issue, not a criminal justice issue.

“The prohibition model hasn’t work, plus it puts the entire trade into the hands of gangs.

“If you had a regulated market, the same way we do with alcohol and tobacco, you can control the price, advertising, point of sale, quality, and run full public health education campaigns.”

Mr Shaw said public opinion on cannabis use had shifted, and a referendum on the issue by 2020 would be timely.

1News (TVNZ), 20 October 2017: “Green Party secure referendum on legalising cannabis, party documents claim

An email circulated around the party’s delegates last night lists “a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at, or by, the 2020 general election” among policy gains under its agreement with Labour.

New Zealand Herald, 20 October 2017: “Kiwis to vote on changing cannabis laws

A public referendum on legalising cannabis for personal use will be held by the 2020 election as part of the agreement between the Green and Labour parties.

Green Party leader James Shaw said that legalising cannabis had been party policy for 20 years, and the use of the substance should be a health issue, not a criminal justice issue.

“The prohibition model hasn’t work, plus it puts the entire trade into the hands of gangs.

“If you had a regulated market, the same way we do with alcohol and tobacco, you can control the price, advertising, point of sale, quality, and run full public health education campaigns.”

Shaw said public opinion on cannabis use had shifted, and a referendum on the issue by 2020 would be timely.

New Zealand Herald, 20 October 2017: “Cannabis referendum: What it could mean for stoners

A public referendum on legalising cannabis for personal use will be held by the 2020 election as part of the agreement between the Green and Labour parties.

Legalising cannabis has been a key policy for the Green Party for the past 20 years.

But what changes will Kiwis be voting on when it comes to the cannabis referendum?

Legalise cannabis for personal use:
According to The Green Party, its drug law reform policy indicates that it aims to make cannabis legal for personal use, including possession and cultivation of the drug.

However, it is unclear whether selling cannabis would be legalised.

Age restriction on cannabis use:
The Greens have made it clear there a legal age limit for personal use of cannabis will need to be introduced, although the age is yet to be set or agreed upon.

Driving under the influence of cannabis:
The current law around driving under the influence of cannabis will be replaced with one that is based on cannabinoid levels that correlates with impairment.

Similar to alcohol breath testing, drivers cannot get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle if they are over the legalised limit of cannabinoid levels.

Legalising medical cannabis

The Greens want to remove penalties for anyone with a terminal illness, chronic or debilitating conditions who grows, possesses and uses cannabis products for therapeutic purposes as long as they have the support of authorised medical practitioner.

Make licensed medical cannabis products more accessible:
The proposed policy would look to accelerate the process by which medical cannabis products are licensed. The move would direct MedSafe to consider the use of category-based classes common compositions of medical cannabis products.

They want to lower the barriers for manufacturers to submit new cannabis products for funding to Pharmac so that evidence can be quickly gathered and distributed if approved.

Before racing ahead with the referendum, they want to assess evidence from overseas jurisdictions where legal cannabis is sold to determine the best model for New Zealand.

“While waiting for broader law change for cannabis, remove penalties for any person with a terminal illness, chronic or debilitating condition to cultivate, possess or use cannabis and/or cannabis products for therapeutic purposes, with the support of a registered medical practitioner”, the policy said.

Other policy gains outlined in the email to delegates included “free counselling for under-25s and access to mental health services and support for everyone” – and also “significant climate action”, an “overhaul of the welfare system” and increased alcohol and drug services.

Canada legalises cannabis:

Medical cannabis is already legal in Canada, but the Canadian government is setting strict guidelines.

Dried and fresh cannabis, as well as cannabis oil, will be initially available with edible products to follow.

in Canada strict guidelines will be set on how cannabis can be marketed. The government is currently weighing whether producers should be required to use plain packaging, with endorsements banned and child-proof packaging required. Any marketing that could appeal to young people will be prohibited, as will be selling the product through self-service display cases or vending machines.

Those who want to grow their own cannabis will be limited to four plants per household.

Canadians will be allowed to carry up to 30 grams of dried cannabis for personal use while those who sell or give marijuana to minors or who drive under its influence will face stiff penalties.

Radio New Zealand, 20 October 2017: “The Greens’ drug reform policy” 

The Green Party has signalled a referendum on legalising cannabis for personal use as part of its confidence and supply deal with Labour.

Its leader, James Shaw, has said New Zealand would have a referendum and it was time to test public opinion on the question of personal marijuana use.

“After [the late trade unionist] Helen Kelly’s medicinal cannabis campaign and other moves to move towards a more regulated market model in places like Colorado and Hawaii and some of the states in Canada … it does seem that the public mood has shifted.

“So we thought well maybe it is time to put that to the test,” Mr Shaw said.

Ms Kelly, the former Council of Trade Unions leader, was diagnosed with lung cancer and her attempts to manage led to her battle to get medical cannabis legalised.

Drug reform policy

The Greens have advocated for an evidence-based approach with a focus on health, as opposed to a punitive approach via the criminal justice system.

In the run-up to the election, the parties with a pro-reform approach were Labour, the Greens, New Zealand First, United Future and the Māori party. Others in support of reform were The Opportunities Party and the Legalise Cannabis Party.

The Green policy – which dates from November last year – supports legalisation of medicinal cannabis and personal use with limitations and restrictions, such as a minimum age.

In terms of general drug reform policy, the Greens say any approach should be rational and evidence-based.

“There can be adverse health, social and economic consequences from the use of drugs for both individuals and society,” the policy said.

“Not all drug use is abusive or problematic.”

Its primary focus should be improving public health instead of punishing those who use drugs and reducing harm, the policy says.

“In government, the Green Party would seek to use objective and health-centred legislation … to re-evaluate the relative harms and appropriate legal and and regulatory status of psychoactive substances.”

On cannabis-specific policy, the party calls for personal use to be legal, including cultivation, with an age limit. Driving laws would change and be “replaced with one that is based on cannabinoid levels that correlates with impairment”.

The policy says medical use would be allowed, and penalties would be removed for anyone who was terminally ill, or suffering from a chronic or debilitating condition. For therapeutic use, people would need the support of a registered medical practitioner, which would also mean relatives or a nominated helper could administer medicinal cannabis to a patient without fear of prosecution.

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