This article first appeared on radionz.co.nz.

Last month, the bland conference level of the James Cook hotel in Wellington was host to something different to the corporate away-days that are its usual fare: a cannabis conference. Or, more specifically, a conference about New Zealand’s coming cannabis referendum.

The event was a bid by the Cannabis Referendum Coalition (CRC) – a new group of old campaigners – to move beyond the loose and sometimes fractious history of cannabis advocacy and present a coherent, even respectable, face.

It largely succeeded. Three MPs spoke, as well as economist Eric Crampton, Hikurangi Enterprises CEO Manu Caddie and criminologist Dr Fiona Hutton. Helen Clark sent a video message that concluded with a firm recitation of the coalition’s “Make It Legal” slogan. On the conference floor, Ministry of Justice officials mingled with long-time stoners.

A portrait of Hemp Store owner and NORML NZ President Chris Fowlie in fromt of a range of pipes and vaporisers.
NORML NZ president Chris Fowlie Photo: Russell Brown.

“There are a lot of new people in the room,” observed Chris Fowlie, president of Norml NZ, the CRC’s largest member, in his opening remarks.

Among them were Suzanne, who works in the wine industry, and Tipene, who works at NorthTec. She’s been to California to see what’s going on with legalisation. He’s been to prison for conspiracy to supply. They compared notes later in the day.

A referendum on legalising cannabis will take place either next year or in 2020. The crucial details – the timing of the referendum, the nature of the process and the question voters will be asked – will be announced by the responsible minister, Andrew Little, before Christmas. But already, the government’s decision to do something no nation has before – put the question of whether to reform drug laws directly to its voters – is changing the face of cannabis advocacy.

It seems that not everyone in the outside world got the memo about the activists going straight. In a discussion with a Parliamentary staffer, RNZ was asked about the baked treats at the conference morning tea that apparently got everyone high. There were, it is true, baked treats, brought in to save on catering costs, but they did not get anyone high. Perhaps it was the fact that they looked a bit like giant doobies. Or perhaps it was the name.

“They were hemp seed bliss balls!” says CRC coordinator Sandra Murray. “When I told people that we had the hemp seed things there, I very clearly said, it’s not psychoactive, it’s just hemp seed.”

Murray would hardly be the sort to slip anyone weed. She has never used cannabis. Her coalition colleague Phil Saxby is a former president of Norml, but says he has “never been a smoker of any kind – I won’t say I’ve never had a smoke, but I’ve never been a smoker.”

They’re not the only key people involved in the campaign for a yes vote in the cannabis referendum who don’t use it themselves.

“I’m not a homosexual, but I supported homosexual law reform,” says Murray. “I’m not a prostitute but I supported prostitution law reform. I’ve seen my friends treated as criminals and it affects their whole life. And I’ve also seen my Māori friends so much more likely to end up in that system than my non-Māori friends. It’s unjust and pointless.”

What Murray and Saxby both bring is campaign experience. He was a central figure in the Electoral Reform Coalition, which won the shift to MMP, and she has been instrumental in dozens of campaigns, on issues ranging from civil and human rights to rape awareness and product stewardship. The CRC’s “network campaign” structure, which aims to offer an umbrella for multiple groups, is her doing.

“Where we’re focusing our efforts now is to set up regional on-the-ground groups, to get as many people involved as possible and to get activities happening up and down the country, not just on social media,” says Murray. “We’re also intending to set up sector groups – people from particular communities, such as the deaf community. How can we support activists within those communities to talk to their own people? We want the campaign to be fun, and something that everyone feels they can take part in.”

Torontonians gather at a local concert venue to watch the "bud drop" at the stroke of midnight, in celebration of the legalization of recreational cannabis.
New Zealand’s cannabis reform campaigners may learn from experiences abroad. Here people gather in Toronto, Canada to watch the ‘bud drop’ at midnight, in celebration of recreational cannabis becoming legal. Photo: AFP

There is an established playbook for cannabis reform campaigns, one written largely in the 10 US states that have legalised and regulated cannabis in the past few years. But there’s a big difference in New Zealand. Those campaigns wrote their own questions for the ballot, honing them through round after round of polling and focus groups, designing the proposition most likely to find favour with voters. Here, that will be up to the government.

Yet, the CRC may still learn lessons from what’s happened abroad. Alison Holcomb, the criminal justice director of American Civil Liberties Union in Washington state, who helped design the successful initiative there seven years ago, says that “voters responded strongly to messages that reassured them about tight control of this novel policy experiment. Messages about freedom and individual rights fell flat. I continue to believe that acknowledging basic human nervousness about change is always important.”

Tamar Todd, legal director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who jointly authored California’s Proposition 64, says voters in her state wanted reassurance in detail. That’s what they got: the full text of Proposition 64 ran to more than 100,000 words of legal and technical definitions and proposed amendments to laws and regulations, together making up the Adult Use of Marijuana Act.

When he was named earlier this year as the minister responsible for the referendum, Andrew Little was dubious about the need for a detailed proposition for voters, let alone a ready-to-go law, but it now appears that is where the government is going. And Little is taking the preparation seriously: seven Ministry of Justice officials have been deputised to consult with stakeholders and develop a process. (By comparison, the regulations accompanying the government’s troubled medicinal cannabis law have had the services of one and half Ministry of Health staff.)

Ironically, the CRC and its veteran activists look in some ways like a conservative party in the referendum debate. Over the day of the conference, it became clear that there was a strong mood on the floor for a non-profit-at-retail model, something like Spain’s cannabis social clubs, rather than a commercial one. And the final conference resolutions called for a two-part question: the first part asking whether possession and use should be legalised, and the second on allowing regulated sale.

“The risk is that if a single question goes too far we may lose everything and not get any reform,” says Fowlie. “But if it’s only one question on legalising use, the risk is that it doesn’t go far enough and doesn’t solve the issues that people are expecting to be solved. We’re advocating a two-part question but our understanding is that it complicates things in terms of having legislation that can be ready to be triggered. But that’s a resourcing issue – throw more people at it and that can happen. It’s not impossible as such.”

Ross Bell, Executive Director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation
New Zealand Drug Foundation’s Ross Bell Photo: RNZ Insight/Teresa Cowie

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell is more confident. “I get where they’re coming from, but I actually think we should back ourselves,” says Bell. “Opinion polling shows that it might be finely-balanced and that’s before we’ve even started a campaign. We should back ourselves that it’s the right thing to do and it’s up to us to persuade the public. If the referendum fails, then it’s because we haven’t done a good job, not because the bill was poorly-written. And I’m confident that we would get a comprehensive regulatory model across the line once it was well explained to the public.”

Exactly how the reformers will get to make their case has yet to be determined, but Little has hinted that he likes the idea of some kind of deliberative democracy, like the “People’s Jury” that heard arguments ahead of Ireland’s historic vote to amend its prohibitive abortion law. That’s not a quick process. The government is due to announce a referendum date before Christmas. In theory, that date could be some time next year, in conjunction with local body elections. In reality, hardly anyone really thinks that’s possible. It’ll be 2020.

But if the legalise cannabis advocates now have their ducks in a row, who and what will constitute a “no” campaign? Murray suggests that gangs who fear the loss of black-market cannabis income could weigh in against legalisation. Right now, however, the obvious opposition consists of one man, Family First’s Bob McCoskrie, known for opposing euthanasia, abortion and smacking law reform.

McCoskrie has been churning out press statements that seem to draw heavily from US religious conservative groups. In an opinion piece published by the New Zealand Herald last week – almost identical to one published two weeks before by Stuff – he focused on the risk of ‘Big Marijuana’, high potency cannabis, and the appeal of the drug to children.

“In Colorado I saw all sorts of THC-infused products, including coffee, ice-cream, baked goods, lollypops, fizzy drinks, tea, hot cocoa, breath mints and spray, pills, gummy bears, chewing gum, marinara sauce and even suppositories. Big Marijuana deliberately targets these products at the young. The earlier they can get someone addicted, the better for business,” he wrote.

Family First national director Bob McCoskrie
Bob McCoskrie is currently the obvious opposition to reform. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Ironically, the reformers aren’t at all keen on Big Cannabis either. Neither proponents or opponents of change see an excess of capitalism as desirable.

Bell doubts McCoskrie has a broad enough appeal to really hold back change, and that the serious opposition has yet to emerge. “The so-called ‘No’ voices are going to come from legitimate groups who are genuinely really worried about what this could all mean,” he says.

He expects opposition to come from older Māori, school principals, and road safety experts. “They all have genuine concerns, but they’re all concerns that we can engage in constructive adult conversations and find a way through.”

“We” might yet prove to be a tricky word. The CRC is emphasising unity of purpose, but there could be future strains between the secular campaigners and the wilder souls. No one in the room took obvious offence when Manu Caddie declared in the conference’s first panel discussion that the importance of winning over “the most conservative voices” meant a different kind of advocacy, one not about “big smokeups outside Parliament any more”. But longtime campaigner Dakta Green, who was at the conference, launched the Wellington Cannabis Club yesterday. The last weed club he opened – the Daktory in Auckland – wound up in him going to prison.

But CRC and Norml’s Chris Fowlie remains upbeat – unity, he says, will sometimes mean agreeing to disagree. “That’s part of our pragmatism. But the main thing from our point of view is that we’re ready to campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote no matter what it is.”