This article first appeared on Stuff.co.nz.
OPINION: The tide is coming in for cannabis law reform. Last week Parliament significantly improved access to medical cannabis. A couple of days later the Government said it was directing the police, by law, not to prosecute personal possession charges where a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial, or where there is no public interest in a prosecution.
These are huge steps forward. But both will be overshadowed by the referendum on general use that was the subject of a Government announcement on Tuesday. Andrew Little, who has been impressive as Minister of Justice, is leading the work on the referendum. He looks to be a good pairs of hands for the task. So what did he say?
The referendum will be held at the next general election in 2020. Any time frame has pros and cons but I think there are some real benefits to this. Having it at the election will help ensure a good turnout for both and, in principle, any increase in participation is a good thing for democracy. Some people may end up voting in the election for the first time because they want a say in the referendum, and that will make it more likely that they will vote in future.
A potential disadvantage is that it risks cannabis becoming an election issue. No doubt the National Party sees an opportunity to grandstand as it did during the medical cannabis debate. Getting real information out there – evidence-based and grounded in reality – will be critical to allowing people a real say. Then again, maybe National won’t. Polls since 2000 have shown that most New Zealanders support a law change. National’s approach when the referendum was first announced last year was a measured one. Simon Bridges indicated that he didn’t agree with change but National would support the outcome. If that was his first instinct, it was a sound one. If National wants to win back mainstream New Zealand, it may find that overblown ‘reefer madness’ rhetoric is not the way to do that.
Binding referenda are unusual in this country. Having an assurance that their votes mean something, and that whatever Government we have after the election will be bound by the result, will make a real difference to people’s attitudes. A binding referendum is more than just a promise to do what the people say. Usually it works by having a bill in Parliament with a trigger clause. The bill automatically comes into effect if the referendum passes. Having the referendum in late 2020 allows time for such a bill to be developed.It was disappointing to learn that the wording of the referendum question is still undecided. What it looks like will be critical.
We already know that a majority of New Zealanders support allowing adults to possess cannabis for personal use. We also know that simply allowing personal use will not solve the many problems caused by cannabis prohibition. If we want to make it harder for kids to get cannabis, we need to have licensed outlets with age restrictions rather than tinny houses. If we want to reduce the influence of gangs, we need to have licensed outlets with legitimate money flows rather than tinny houses. If we want to break the connection between cannabis and other drugs, we need to have licensed outlets that do not sell other drugs, rather than tinny houses.
Putting up a referendum question on a fully legal market, as they have now in a number of US States and Canada, is risky. That is why the #MakeItLegal campaign has been pushing for two questions in the referendum. The questions would be based on a modular bill with Division A to do with personal possession, growing and use and Division B to do with sales. The questions would simply be:
1. Do you support adults being allowed to grow and possess cannabis for personal use? (as per Division A of the bill)
2. Do you support adults being able to buy cannabis and cannabis products from licensed premises? (as per Division B of the bill)
That is the only real way to test not just whether New Zealanders want change, but what kind of change they want. After so much delay, the people of New Zealand are owed a proper choice.
Former Green Party MP Nandor Tanczos is a permaculturalist and social ecologist. He is a councillor at Whakatāne District Council and works as an educator and community organiser. He has been involved in cannabis law reform since 1990 and is a member of the #MakeItLegal coalition.