Q. What is this referendum on cannabis that I keep hearing about?
A. On 17 October 2020, as part of the general election, New Zealanders will have the opportunity to vote either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the following question: Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?
Q. Ok, but what does that mean? What is the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?
A. The proposed Bill sets out a new way for the government to control and regulate cannabis, in order to reduce cannabis-related harm in the community.
The Bill would allow a person aged 20+ to:
• Buy up to 14 grams of dried cannabis per day from licensed outlets;
• Consume cannabis on private property or licensed premises;
• Grow up to two cannabis plants per person, or up to four plants per household; and,
• Share up to 14 grams of dried cannabis with another person aged 20+
Q. Alright then. Does that mean if enough people vote ‘yes’, cannabis will be legalised straight away?
After the election, the new government would need to introduce and pass a Bill through Parliament BEFORE cannabis would become legal. This process would include the opportunity for the public to share their thoughts on the proposed law and how it might work.
Q. But what if more people vote ‘no’?
A. If more than 50% of people vote ‘no’, the recreational use of cannabis would remain illegal, as it is under current law.
Q. If we’re voting on whether to change the law, is there something wrong with the current law?
A. Recreational cannabis is illegal under current law. However, the Police are able to treat cannabis possession as a health concern rather than a criminal matter, unless there is a clear public good to be gained from prosecution.
The current law is problematic for a number of reasons including:
• Māori are three times more likely to be arrested or convicted for cannabis-related offences.
• Arrest and/or conviction for cannabis offences does not result in a reduction of cannabis use.
• Criminalising cannabis use can deter people dependent on cannabis from seeking help.
Q. How does the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill propose to change things?
A. The Bill legalises restricted access to cannabis and seeks to reduce cannabis-related harm to people and communities by:
• providing access to legal cannabis that meets quality and potency requirements;
• eliminating the illegal supply of cannabis;
• raising awareness of health risks;
• restricting young people’s access;
• limiting public visibility;
• requiring health warnings on packaging;
• improving access to health and social services; and,
• ensuring the response to any breach of law is fair.
A more detailed summary of the proposed Bill can be found here
Q. So, this referendum deals with recreational cannabis. What about medicinal cannabis and hemp?
A. Medicinal cannabis and hemp are not part of the referendum.
Medicinal cannabis was legalised by the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act 2018, which came into force earlier this year. Both medicinal cannabis and hemp production/sale are regulated by the Ministry of Health.
Q. I’ve heard a lot of public debate on this issue lately. Is cannabis use even that common?
A. Multiple studies and surveys have shown that recreational cannabis use is relatively common in NZ. Current data estimates that among those aged 15-64, 10.6% use cannabis.
A world-renowned Christchurch longitudinal study reported that of over 1000 participants in the cohort, 80% had tried cannabis at least once.
These statistics suggest that recreational cannabis use is a normative behaviour in NZ.
Q. Ok then. What are the risks associated with cannabis use?
A. The major risks associated with long-term cannabis use appear associated with those who:
• begin using in their early teens; and/or,
• use frequently (on more days than not); and/or,
• are dependent on cannabis.
Approximately 5-10% of the NZ population make up this group and may experience the following physical harms:
• loss of psychological function, including psychoses;
• loss of ability to think intelligently; and,
• poor respiratory and gum health;
This group may also experience the following social harms:
• welfare dependence;
• educational failure;
• employment problems;
• criminal conviction and incarceration.
Q. Will all people who use cannabis experience these harms?
While the long-term harmful effects of cannabis on the adolescent brain are undisputed, those who try cannabis a couple of times as an adult or use cannabis occasionally are unlikely to experience these most serious harms.
Like any drug, the more frequent the use, the greater the risk to the user.
This said, cannabis is a psychoactive substance. Therefore, even a single use is likely to affect the user’s mood and perception. Common reported side effects of cannabis use include:
• decreased concentration; (implication for drug driving etc)
• increased appetite;
• increased heart rate;
• dry mouth; and,
• onset of paranoia/anxiety
Q. This has been very helpful, but where can I find more detailed information?
A. There is lots of further information here
The government has launched a website dedicated to explaining both the referendum and the proposed Bill.
There is the Prime Minister’s Science Advisor’s Expert Panel report.
A helpful article, “Patterns of recreational cannabis use in Aotearoa-New Zealand and their consequences: evidence to inform voters in the 2020 referendum”, can be downloaded here.