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cannabis referendum
cannabis referendum

PoliticsAugust 5, 2020

Everything you need to know about the 2020 cannabis referendum

cannabis referendum
cannabis referendum

Alongside the general election of 2020, New Zealanders will be asked to vote on the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, which legalises restricted access to cannabis. Here’s our bumper question-and-answer special on what it involves.

Click here for everything you need to know about the assisted dying referendum. Read more from the Spinoff on Election 2020 here.

How and when do I vote on this referendum?

At the same time you vote in the general election, which is on Saturday, October 17. But you can advance vote from October 3 at selected local voting places. You’ll be given a voting paper for the two referendums as well as one for the election, and you can tick either “yes” or “no” for each referendum 

Do I have to vote in this referendum? 

Nope, voting in the two referendums is optional. You can vote in one, both or neither. 

What is the exact question I’ll be voting on?

“Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?”

That’s it? 

That’s it. To be a worthwhile gauge of public opinion, referendum questions have to be worded as neutrally as possible. So the question itself is a simple yes or no about a specific piece of legislation. 

When will we know the result? Can I sit up all night watching election coverage and blaze up when the results come in?

Not legally, no. Referendum votes, unlike election votes, won’t be counted on the night. Preliminary referendum results will be released by the Electoral Commission on Friday, October 30, with the official results coming a week later, on Friday, November 6.

Great, so if the yes votes win, I can blaze up that Friday night!

Whoa there, you most certainly cannot (not legally, anyway). The bill still needs to make its way through parliament.

Eh? Even after the people have spoken?

Unlike the End of Life Choice Bill, which passed last year with a clause stating it must also go to referendum, the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill will be introduced to parliament by the next government only if more than 50% vote “yes” in the referendum.

How long will that take?

After its first reading, the bill will go to a select committee, during which stage the public can give their feedback on the bill. Select committees usually have six months to gather information and prepare a report on a bill for the house. Then there will be second and third readings. All in all, it’s likely we’ll be waiting until 2021 for actual legalisation.

Does that process mean the bill could change from its current version?


Is it possible that even if the “yes” voters win, nothing changes?

Possible, yes. The referendum isn’t binding. The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and justice minister, Andrew Little, have argued it is, because every party in the current government has committed to honouring the result by passing the draft legislation. But the problem is, they may not be in government after the election. Former National leader Todd Muller said his party would likely support the legalisation of cannabis if New Zealand voted “yes”, but the stance of new leader Judith Collins isn’t clear. Appearing on The Project soon after she became leader, Collins said “I think it’s a no” to legalising cannabis, but it’s not clear what her stance is if the New Zealand public say yes. 

Hmm. So what’s in this bill then?  

You can read the full thing here, but in a nutshell, it would allow a person aged 20 or over to:  

  • Buy up to 14 grams of dried cannabis (or its equivalent) per day only from licensed outlets.
  • Enter licensed premises where cannabis is sold or consumed.
  • Consume cannabis on a private property or at a licensed premise.
  • Grow up to two plants, with a maximum of four plants per household.
  • Share up to 14 grams of dried cannabis (or its equivalent) with another person aged 20 or over.

What does 14 grams or its equivalent look like?

It’s basically half an ounce and, according to Paula Bennett, if it were oregano, it’d look like this.

The various equivalents of 14g of dried are, according to the bill, 70g of fresh cannabis, 14 cannabis seeds, 210g of cannabis edibles or 980g of liquids, or 3.5g of concentrates.

And where will I be able to buy the devil’s lettuce?

Licensed outlets. There will be two types of licences: retail and consumption. Let’s start with retail outlets: they would be able to sell only cannabis, cannabis products and cannabis accessories. Cannabis retailers would not be able to sell alcohol or tobacco, or conventional food. You won’t be able to consume the cannabis on site – you’d have to take it home.

Could a dairy get a retail licence?

No, unless they stop selling all the other stuff and convert into a cannabis-only retail outlet, in which case they won’t really be a dairy, will they?

Are these dope shops gonna be on every street corner? Could one pop up next door to my house/school/place of worship?

A cannabis regulation authority will be established, which will set a cap on the quantity of cannabis available for sale and supply. Access to the majority of the cap would be managed by allocating businesses a portion of the cap they are allowed to supply,” according to the summary of the bill. “No single business could supply more than 20% of the cap.”

The authority will make decisions on the locations of consumption and retail premises on a case-by-case basis, and will set minimum and maximum opening hours.

Local authorities would have power to restrict hours, within the minimum and maximum limits, and “communities can take part in the development of local licensed premises policies, including how close retail and consumption premises should be to schools, places of worship and other community facilities”.

Public submissions can be made on licensing applications, but the final decision will rest with the authority.

What will these retailers look like? Will there be big flashing neon cannabis leaves and garish ‘Wacky Baccy’ signs!?

No. According to the summary of the bill, there will be restrictions on the appearance of premises, including rules against promoting the fact that cannabis is available for purchase inside.

What about buzzy weed ads?

Nope. Advertising, promoting and sponsoring cannabis products and cannabis businesses would be banned. However, businesses would be able to label products with their company name. 

Cool packaging?

The authority would develop packaging requirements that discourage cannabis consumption, such as plain packaging and health warnings. Product labels would have to include the amount of THC and CBD (cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound with potential therapeutic benefits), and how the product compares to the daily purchase limit. 

What about on-premise health warnings?

Cannabis outlets would have to “display information about the legal requirements they must meet, including minimising harm and meeting their obligations towards people who may be impaired by cannabis consumption. Retailers would be banned from making false, misleading, or therapeutic claims, or displaying these claims within consumption premises.”

Cannabis consumption premises employees would have to undergo compulsory “responsible host training”. 

Online sales?

Nope, not permitted under the bill, and nor is delivery via mail or courier.

Will I be able to buy cannabis from a licensed retailer and then consume it at the beach or in the park? 

Not within the law.

What about in a car parked on the street outside the cannabis retailer?

Nope. “A person must not consume cannabis in a public place or in a vehicle that is in a public place”. You shouldn’t drive after consuming cannabis either. As the referendum FAQs page states, say, “Drug driving is already an offence under the Land Transport Act 1998. The bill would not replace the existing law.”

I think I get it. Private premises. But what if I live in a rental property?

It’s not entirely clear. As Stuff reports, in the US state of Colorado, which legalised recreational cannabis in 2012, landlords have the ability to prohibit or regulate the possession, consumption and growth of cannabis on their property. The state also has dedicated cannabis-friendly rental websites. The current bill doesn’t mention rental properties. Sheryl Marriott from the Property Investors Association told Stuff the rules in the proposed bill were ambiguous, and expected details to be ironed out if the referendum were to pass.

Can I get stoned at work?

Probably not, on account of the Smoke-Free Environments Act. You could try to get around that, sure, but your boss might frown upon space brownies at smoko. According to the summary of the bill, “under existing law, employers and employees must make sure the workplace is safe. Employees must comply with any reasonable policy or procedure relating to health and safety, including a policy on alcohol and drugs.”

So will I not be able to consume cannabis anywhere other than at a private residence?

You will! Premises will be able to hold consumption licences. If they have that licence only, you can BYO cannabis to consume there – the premises would have to provide water and food too. 

Can a place have both a retail and a consumption licence?

It can indeed. If it has both licences, you can buy and consume cannabis on site, alongside food and non-alcoholic drinks.

Non-alcoholic drinks, you say? So not down the pub?

Nah, there will be a lot more restrictions than your average pub is bound by. A person must be aged 20 or over to enter, or work at, premises where cannabis is sold or consumed, for one. And you won’t be allowed to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco there.

No beer, no ciggies, OK. But I can buy a joint and smoke it there, right?

Yes, but outside only. “Smoking or vaping cannabis indoors at consumption premises would be prohibited”, says the summary of the bill

So I’ll have to go out on the street like cigarette smokers do?

Stop! Not in public, remember. Presumably consumption premises will have lovely private outdoor areas, or you’ll have to stick to non-smoke formats.

Like edibles?

Yep, like them. You might have to wait a bit longer though. Under the bill, licensed cannabis products would become available in stages over time, starting with dried and fresh cannabis, cannabis plants and cannabis seeds. “The authority would recommend the introduction of other licensed products for sale (for example, concentrates and cannabis edibles), which could then be approved through regulations,” according to the summary of the bill.

Hmm. But eventually, we’ll get gummies? 

Nup. Cannabis edibles produced under licence would be “restricted to baked products that do not require refrigeration or heating”, and would “be banned if considered appealing to young people”.

But surely all baked goods are appealing to young people?!

I dunno, chuck some beetroot or something in there?

But these consumption premises will be whipping up weed brownies etc alongside other regular cafe food?

Nope, the edibles must be produced in separate premises to those used for food production.

Will I be able to concoct my own culinary cannabis creations at home? 

Sure, as long as you’re not using dangerous production methods to extract resin or produce a cannabis concentrate.  

I see. What about drinks? Will we be able to sup upon an ice-cold glass of Toker-Cola?

No. Cannabis beverages would be banned.

Right, that’s selling and consuming covered. What about growing? 

A person aged over 20 can grow up to two plants, with a maximum of four per household. They must be grown out of public sight and inaccessible from a public area. So no guerrilla berm activity, please.

Can I sell what I’ve grown? 

Not without a licence you can’t. 

What about give it to or share it with me chums?

Yes, you can share up to 14g of dried cannabis (or its equivalent) with another person, as long as they’re 20 or older.

How does one go about getting one of these licences? 

Anyone applying for a licence to grow, produce or supply cannabis would be assessed on “their ability to comply with requirements, disqualifying factors, and any other factors that influence the person’s suitability”. Police vetting would be included in this process. 

The following factors would be considered when deciding who gets a licence and what portion of the cap they are allocated: the extent to which they represent or partner with communities disproportionately harmed by cannabis, generate social benefit and build community partnerships, and promote employment opportunities and career pathways.

Will having a past cannabis-related conviction rule people out from getting a licence?

Some less serious previous convictions – such as cannabis possession for personal use – will not, on their own, disqualify the person.

Will small growers be able to make a living or will they be squashed by Big Weed?

According to the bill summary, part of the cap would be set aside for micro-cultivators (licensed businesses growing on a small scale). When the wording of the bill was released in May, Andrew Little said, “We wouldn’t want a market dominated by corporate players.”

Let’s talk about potency. Any controls around that?

Indeed. The cannabis regulation authority would set limits on the allowed level of THC (the main psychoactive compound in cannabis), taking into account “reducing problematic use and preventing overconsumption, providing consumer choice, and the potency of illegal cannabis”.

“Cannabis products would have to go through an approval process before being released to the market. Higher-risk products would have to go through a stricter process.”

Are retailers allowed to have sales?

No. Retailers would not be able to sell cannabis or cannabis products at a reduced price, or give these away for free.

Will cannabis be taxed?

You bet. An excise tax, based on weight and potency, would apply and be collected when a product is packaged and labelled for retail sale.

“A levy, similar to that applied to alcohol and gambling, would fund services to reduce cannabis harm, as set out in a public health, drug education and treatment services strategy,” says the bill summary, and “a licensing fee would recover the costs associated with administering and monitoring the licensing regime”.

Can you tell me any more about this cannabis regulation authority?

Love to. It’s a holding name only, and its stated aims are to oversee the regulation of the cannabis market in a way that “promotes the wellbeing of New Zealanders, reduces the harms associated with cannabis use, and reduces overall use of cannabis over time”. It’d do that by promoting “health-focused, compliant behaviour” through various means involving doing research, raising public awareness, creating guidelines, yada yada. 

Would any other official bodies be set up?

Sure would. A cannabis advisory committee would advise the authority and develop a five-yearly national plan “including the public health, drug education and treatment-services strategy, which will be the basis for determining the levy”. Membership of the committee would include representation of iwi and Māori, specific population groups, such as children and young people, and expertise from the health, justice and social sectors.

What’s the deal with medicinal cannabis? And what about hemp?

Medicinal cannabis is not covered under this bill as it’s already legal, but the NZ Drug Foundation, which supports the bill, says legalising recreational cannabis would mean easier, cheaper access for patients to a wider range of products. Doctors can prescribe cannabis products, but some argue the process is flawed, as some doctors are dubious about the benefits of cannabis, and the products are expensive, making them “inaccessible to a majority of potential users”.

The commercial cultivation of hemp has been legal in New Zealand since 2005, and hemp seed was made legal for human consumption in New Zealand in November 2018.

There seem to be a lot of rules. Are there penalties if people break them, and how do they compare with the current penalties?

Possession of any amount of cannabis is currently illegal in New Zealand, with the maximum penalty three months’ jail or a fine of up to $500.

Under the new regime, If you’ve got more than 14g on you in public, you’re consuming cannabis in public, or you commit an infringement offence of importing or exporting cannabis (ie a couple of joints in your handbag, rather than a sophisticated export ring), you’ll be up for an infringement fee of $200 (or a court-imposed fine of up to $500). To compare, the current maximum penalty for possessing cannabis or another Class C drug is three months’ jail or a fine of up to $500

An infringement fee of $500 (or a court-imposed fine of up to $1,000) will be imposed for growing more than the permitted two cannabis plants per person (or four per property) but 10 or fewer. The same fee will apply if you’re caught sending cannabis in the post, or if you’re exposing someone 19 or under to cannabis smoke or vape.

If you’re growing more than 10 plants, you could go to jail for up to three months or be fined up to $2,000. (To compare, the maximum current penalty for growing cannabis is seven years’ jail.)

If you’re under 20 and found in possession of cannabis, the focus would be on a “health-based response such as an education session, social or health service”, or you’d pay a small fee or fine of $100-$200. It would not lead to a conviction. 

The new law would not look on supplying under-20s with cannabis favourably, however: you’d be convicted and fined up to $5,000 for doing so. Supplying someone over 20 with more than 14g is also frowned upon, leading to a conviction and fine of up to $3,000.

Knowingly selling to an under-20 or being reckless as to whether or not they are of age could lead to a conviction and a jail term of up to two years for an individual, or a whopping $150,000 fine for a non-individual (eg a business or gang). Selling without a licence? Up to two years in the slammer for an individual, or a fine of up to $100,000 otherwise. 

Right then. So who’ve we got on either side of this referendum?

The Greens are certainly pro – after the 2017 election, their confidence and supply agreement with Labour included an obligation for the government to “have a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at, or by, the 2020 general election”. Now the party is actively campaigning for a yes vote. 

The other parties are not taking a position, though Labour and NZ First have committed to enacting the bill should the yes voters prevail.

Nine organisations have registered as third-party promoters for the referendum, including The NZ Drug Foundation, a charitable trust aimed at reducing drug- and alcohol-related harm, which is campaigning for a yes vote. High-profile supporters of this campaign include former prime minister Helen Clark and psychiatrist Dr Hinemoa Elder.

The largest group opposing the bill is Smart Approaches to Marijuana NZ Coalition (SAM-NZ), a collective of more than 25 groups including the NZ Christian Network, the New Zealand Muslims Association and Family First. They’re behind the Say Nope to Dope ads you might have seen, featuring a sinister gummy bear smoking a joint. (A misleading choice, given gummy bears will not be permitted under the law and confectionery bears don’t smoke.) Stuff has a good rundown on the other organisations campaigning either way. 

What are the main claims being made for and against?

Arguments for voting yes (from the NZ Drug Foundation website): 

  • “Yes” campaigners say the current law is not working. Despite cannabis being illegal, anyone can buy it easily.
  • They believe cannabis should be treated as a health and social issue, not a crime. 
  • They say legalisation would free up police to focus on serious crime.
  • Taxes from legalising and controlling cannabis could generate up to $490 million that the government has promised to put into health and education programmes, they claim.
  • Prohibition disproportionately affects Māori. Despite making up 16.5% of our population, in 2018, Māori represented 44% of those charged for low-level drug offences, like possession or use. Around half those imprisoned for those same offences were Māori.

Arguments for voting no (from the Say Nope to Dope website): 

  • “No” campaigners claim cannabis has become more potent in recent years, making it “a fundamentally different, harder drug” than weed of the “Woodstock era”. (Pro-legalisation groups say this is not the case; there’s no conclusive evidence either way.)
  • They say “Big Marijuana” will dictate the conversation in a similar manner to Big Tobacco, and will “deny evidence-based science, and emphasise the economic benefits of large tax revenues, while ignoring the harms”, as well as targeting minority and low-income groups.
  • They believe marijuana is addictive and harmful, especially to mental health, and cite studies that suggest its use is linked to domestic violence. They claim edibles will be appealing to children.
  • They say the purchase and possession allowance is too high, and allege controlling potency will enable the black market to develop for higher-strength products.
  • They say prohibition works as it deters people from using it, while legalisation will increase use.
  • They claim very few people are currently being imprisoned for low-level cannabis offences, and promises of a tax windfall are overstated.
  • They believe workplaces will suffer, and people will drive stoned.
  • They claim marijuana cultivation is bad for the planet, and legalising marijuana will lead to other drugs being legalised.

Click here for everything you need to know about the assisted dying referendum. Read more from the Spinoff on Election 2020 here.

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