A bill legalizing adult-use cannabis in New Zealand is going to be on the ballot as early as next year or in 2020. This is according to Justice Minister Andrew Little.
Little said that lawmakers are discussing whether to hold a stand-alone referendum in 2019 or to hold a referendum concurrently with the national elections the following year.
New Zealand’s governing party – Labour – had agreed after the 2017 election to hold a public referendum on recreational cannabis legalization in order to secure the left-wing Green Party’s support to create a coalition government.
Now, the government is saying that this binding referendum could take place ahead of the country’s 2020 election so that the issue would not overshadow the election campaign.
The cannabis referendum
Unlike Citizen Initiated Referendums, which are generally ignored and are non-binding, this government-led cannabis referendum agreed to by Labour and the Green Party will be binding.
The Green Party’s policy is to treat marijuana as a health issue and not as a crime. The Greens are pushing to legalize personal use, medical use, and cultivation of cannabis. They also want to move towards a cannabis market that is regulated.
Earlier this year, Green MP Chloe Swarbrick’s medical cannabis bill failed at first reading, with 73 MPs voting against it and only 47 voting in its favor.
This medical cannabis bill would have allowed patients who are terminally ill and debilitated to grow cannabis legally if they have a prescription from their doctor.
A measure laying the groundwork for a regulated medical marijuana industry is currently in the works and is before the Health Committee.
If this government-led referendum is approved, it would pave the way for a domestic medical cannabis market and give the terminally ill, as well as those suffering from chronic pain, legal means to acquire the drug.
Referendum for cannabis + another issue
It seems like there is also another agenda that New Zealanders will be voting on aside from cannabis: legalizing voluntary euthanasia.
Little said that if the referendum pushes through, it would make sense to just combine the two agenda.
“If you are going to do one… it would make sense to not spend a lot of money on a succession of referenda,” he explained.
NZ First has already said that its support for the bill to legalize euthanasia is hinged on a binding referendum. Act Party leader David Seymour, the euthanasia bill’s sponsor, has agreed to this proposal. It will, however, still need the support of the majority in Parliament in order to proceed.
For now, let’s hold our breath
There is no decision yet as to when the cannabis referendum is going to be held.
According to Little, Cabinet has not gotten around to considering the details of the referendum yet, including the specific date and whether it should be held at the same time as the 2020 election or earlier.
Little said that holding it at the same time as the general election would mean some cost saving. However, it would also mean that the general election will be dominated by the issue of cannabis.
The Greens have their own preferences, though. Green Party leader James Shaw said he prefers to hold the referendum simultaneously with the election since “people will be going to the polling booths anyway.”
He also pointed out that mail is becoming an outdated way to stay in touch, so there is no telling how the turn-out on a postal referendum would go.
As to concerns about the referendum ending up overshadowing the campaign period, Shaw said there are ways to keep politics out of it.
Swarbrick, on the other hand, said holding it in 2019 could prevent the issue from being politicized and make way for a more evidentiary discussion. Holding it 2020, she said, might mean ending up with something that dominates discussions on issues like housing, healthcare, and criminal justice.