Do You Support the Proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill? - A Resource for Voters

Non-Binding Referendum Question: “Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?” – A Resource for Voters

What is the Cannabis Referendum About?

The Cannabis Referendum is to decide whether to legalise recreational cannabis. The referendum is not about medicinal cannabis. Being non-binding means that if a majority vote yes, the proposed Bill will be put through the normal parliamentary process and the ultimate decision will rest with the incoming government.

There are three ways of approaching recreational cannabis: 1: make it illegal and a criminal offence; 2: decriminalise it – retain its illegal status, but remove criminal sanctions and apply penalties and/or health-based interventions (such as addiction therapy) to those who use, grow and/or supply it; 3: legalise it.

Up to 2019, the law treated cannabis as a criminal issue. However, in 2019 the Misuse of Drugs Act was amended so that possession offences could be treated as health issues instead of criminal, except where there is a clear public good to be gained from prosecution. Thus, while cannabis remains illegal, the police can use discretion in deciding how to respond to those who use, grow and/or supply it; whether to charge a person or steer them towards a health-based intervention. In reality, we have a form of ‘de-facto’ decriminalisation.

There are good arguments to be made that the current laws and regulations around the possession and use of recreational cannabis are not working well:

  • The diversion of people to the health system based on police discretion is problematic: rangatahi Māori (Māori youth) are three times more likely to be convicted for cannabis-related offences than their non-Māori peers, indicating systemic racial bias in the current application of the law.
  • The current law does not deter people using recreational cannabis – 95% continue to use it after arrest. Decriminalisation offers an alternative path for reforming our laws around recreational cannabis use; for moving from a criminal-based approach to a health-based one focused on addiction and reducing demand. The current referendum does not provide for a decriminalisation option not based on police discretion.

The Proposed Law

The purpose of the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill is to regulate and control the manufacture, use and sale of cannabis. The intention of the Bill is to reduce the harms caused by recreational cannabis to individuals, whānau, families, and communities by: 1) controlling the potency and quality of cannabis products; 2) shifting users from the black market to legal supply outlets; 3) using the proceeds from these sales to fund health interventions to help those living with cannabis addiction; 4) reducing the demand for cannabis; 5) imposing a minimum-use age of 20 years; 6) ensuring that health warnings accompany the purchase of all legal cannabis products. A key question is whether the proposed law will be able to deliver what it promises.

Which Groups are Likely to be Most Negatively Affected by the Proposed Law?

Research shows the three most vulnerable demographics in our society in terms of recreational cannabis are:

  • rangatahi Māori, because they are three times more likely to be arrested/convicted for cannabis-related offences than their non-Māori peers, indicating systemic racial bias in the current application of the law;
  • young people as a whole because of the effect cannabis can have on the developing brain;
  • people of all ages (including youth) who are genetically predisposed to a severe psychiatric reaction to cannabis.

Some Factors and Questions to Consider in Deciding How to Vote

  • What effect will the proposed changes have on young people, taking particular account of the lack of knowledge of the short-term and long-term side-effects of today’s much stronger cannabis?
  • Will legalisation help us to better understand and respond to the complex constellation of social, economic, historical, political, and physical factors, including racism, that are at the root of drug use/addiction?
  • Our rangatahi (youth) may be uniquely susceptible to lasting damage from cannabis use into their early or mid-20s, while the brain is still developing. Studies have found evidence of brain changes in teens and young adults who smoke cannabis.
  • The belief that making cannabis more easily available while expecting that prohibition will restrict its availability and reduce demand among rangatahi is counter-intuitive – young people will access it more easily, in the same way they currently access alcohol and tobacco through friends and family, not retailers.
  • Overseas, the legalisation of cannabis has not ended the black-market supply, primarily because regulated cannabis costs more by being subject to testing and taxes, and has lower levels of the active ingredient, THC.
  • When cannabis is combined with alcohol, the risk of a fatal driving accident increases. That risk is present with moderate levels of cannabis and blood alcohol under the drink-driving limit.
  • Research shows that while there is minimal change in the number of people who consume cannabis after it is legalised, those who do consume appear to increase their use considerably.
  • Globally, cannabis is emerging as big business, worth billions of dollars. As with the tobacco business and the alcohol business, these companies are powerful and have a vested interest in driving up demand.
  • How does this Bill intersect with other Bills – e.g. the 2019 Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission Bill and how will it intersect with the aim to be Smoke Free by 2025?

Conclusion: Cannabis is a complex, nuanced issue. The current laws are not preventing harm despite it being illegal. Decriminalisation and legalisation of recreational cannabis around the world are a relatively recent change in approach and the long-term effects – physical, social, economic – whether positive or negative or neutral, are not fully known yet and may not be known for some years. The key questions are: 1) how do we best respond to the current ineffectualness of the law? 2) how do we best attend to the harm that is happening, especially to our rangitahi? and 3) how do we best prevent future harm?

For more information, see: and topics/cannabis/, as well The Nathaniel Report (Issues 57, 58 and 60).

Authorised by John Kleinsman, the Nathaniel Centre for Bioethics, 15 Guildford Terrace, Wellington 5028