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A Bill to vote YES on…

A Bill to vote YES on…

The Cannabis Leglaisation and Control Bill has been released. This is the Bill that you will be voting on.

At the general election, on your ballot paper, will be a question:

Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?

You can choose 1 of these 2 answers:

  • Yes, I support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill
  • No, I do not support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill

The Bill is summarised in this infographic:

More information can be found here:

Turuki Turuki

Turuki Turuki

The second report of the Safe and Effective Justice Committee states “That the Government strengthen regulation of alcohol, legalise and regulate personal use of cannabis, and consider that for all drugs, treating personal drug use as a health issue, with more funding towards prevention, education and treatment.”
See the full report here:

Drug Driving Discussion Document

Drug Driving Discussion Document

The Government initiated a discussion document on drugged driving. The deadline for submissions was Friday 28 June 2019. You can find the discussion document detail here.

The #makeitlegal submission is below:


28 June 2019


The Make It Legal Aotearoa New Zealand Trust is committed to supporting drug law reform research, campaigns and education for the benefit of individuals, whanau and communities. In particular we:

  • undertake and disseminate educational material and research on drug law reform policy and legislation and its impact on individuals, whanau and communities; and
  • support individuals, whanau, communities and organisations in activities that promote drug law reform, particularly the legalisaton of cannabis and
  • support just and rational drug laws that reduce harm and illicit activity; and maximises benefits to individuals, whanau and communities; and
  • provide other support and assistance consistent with our purpose.

The Make It Legal Aotearoa New Zealand Trust is currently campaigning under #makeitlegal, to raise support for cannabis law reform in the 2020 referendum on the legalisation of cannabis.


We commend the Government on its enhanced commitment to road safety, including attempting to grapple with the difficult question of how to regulate drugged driving.

We urge the Government to consider this question within a broader context of driver impairment, regardless of the cause of that impairment.

We consider that impairment testing as it is currently practised is outdated, subjective and inadequate. We recommend that resources go into collaboration with other jurisdictions to develop simple device-based reaction testing as a low-cost screening device for impairment.

Following an impairment screening device, further testing (including substance testing where appropriate) and interventions can be conducted based on the nature and source of the impairment.


Sandra Murray

Secretary – Make It Legal Aotearoa New Zealand Trust


Phone: 021 890 629




We wish to make an oral submission on this matter if we can do so by phone or video conference.



QUESTION 1: Do you think that roadside drug screening is a good option for deterring drug driving and detecting drug drivers? Are there other options not mentioned in this Discussion Document?

We agree that some kind of low cost and quick screening device for impairment is desirable, to act as a deterrent to impaired driving.

We do not support roadside drug screening. If the objective is to improve road safety, impairment needs to be the focus, regardless of the source of that impairment. The discussion document points out a number of substances that can cause impairment but which are unlikely to be tested for – synthetics, prescription drugs etc. There is also impairment that is not caused by a substance – lack of sleep, emotional stress etc.

We consider it entirely feasible to develop a simple app, loaded on a mobile device of some kind, that can test, for example, reaction time on a simple task. Failure to achieve a predetermined level can give rise to further testing to determine the cause of the impairment. This allows a quantifiable, objective test of impairment. It would mean a simple, low cost and rapid screening test that could be conducted in a similar way to roadside breath testing for alcohol.

Further interventions, following a failure on the initial screening test, could include:

  1. A more comprehensive (device-based) impairment test to determine the level of impairment. This could be linked to an individual’s base score over time, as the technology and levels of data capture improves.
  2. Blood testing for specified substances considered to present the highest levels of risk to other drivers.
  3. A discussion to see if other causes of impairment can be ascertained (eg.tiredness) and an appropriate response identified (eg prohibited to drive for a period)

 QUESTION 2: Do you support oral fluid screening for roadside drug testing of drivers? Are there other options not mentioned in this Discussion Document that could be considered?

As above

QUESTION 3: Is it reasonable to delay drivers by 3 to 5 minutes to administer a roadside drug screening test, in order to detect drug drivers and remove them from the road?

No. Such a delay would quickly lead to intolerable backlogs. A screening test needs to be able to be completed in around a minute. Our proposal in response to Question 1 would allow that.

QUESTION 4: Is a presence-based, zero-tolerance approach to drug driving, where presence of a drug is sufficient for an offence, appropriate for New Zealand?

No. Such an approach would punish people for behaviour that does not put others at risk. The issue is impairment and driver safety.  The “presence” of a drug i not the same as being impaired. Many
prescription drugs in low doses do not impair, but do in high doses. We already have a tolerated level of alcohol

QUESTION 5: Should there be legal limits for some drugs?

Yes. Any limits should be based on robust science that gives a reliable level for impairment, and reliable testing.

QUESTION 6: If roadside drug screening was introduced, which of the three approaches discussed above do you prefer?

  • Testing under the current ‘good cause to suspect’ criterion
  • Targeted testing following an incident or a driving offence
  • Random roadside drug screening, along the lines of the current breath alcohol testing model.

Are there other approaches that should be considered?

If a roadside screening test for impairment was developed, along the lines outlined in our answer to Question 1, we would support random testing. Otherwise, given the low correlation in substance testing between detection and impairment, we do not support drug screening.

QUESTION 7: If random drug screening was introduced, do you think it is a reasonable and proportionate response to the harm of drug driving? Are there circumstances in which it would be more or less reasonable?

Random testing using a method which is reasonably quick and which reliably tests that people are impaired, such as is the case with alcohol testing or with direct impairment testing as we have outlined in response to Question1, is proportionate to the harm of impaired driving. Otherwise we are not convinced it is.

 QUESTION 8: What criteria should be used to determine if a drug is included, or excluded, from drug screening?

If a secondary screening for substances is used, following an impairment screening as we have outlined in our answer to Question 1, we think that it should be based on robust evidence about which drugs are most likely to lead to accidents and which ones can be reliably tested for levels of impairment. We make the point that this may need to be based on some kind of matrix. A drug which causes moderate impairment but also leads to more risk taking may be a higher risk than a drug which causes higher impairment but leads to more cautious driving.

QUESTION 9: What regulatory process should be used to specify the drugs that are identified for screening?

An Order in Council is the appropriate regulatory process.

QUESTION 10: Should illicit and prescription drugs be treated differently?

No. If prescription drugs state that people should not drive under their influence, and there is robust evidence that they impair driving, then they should be treated the same as illegal drugs.

QUESTION 11: Should there be a medical defence for drivers who have taken prescription drugs in accordance with a prescription from a medical professional?

No. If a prescription drug causes driver impairment, we would expect that using it “in accordance with a prescription” means not driving.

QUESTION 12: If oral fluid testing was introduced in New Zealand, do you think there should be a requirement for a second drug screening test following a failed first test? Do you prefer another option for screening drivers?

Please see our response to Question1.

QUESTION 13: Do you think that drug driving offences should be confirmed with an evidentiary blood test? If not, what evidence should be required to establish an offence of drug driving?

Yes. Drug driving offences should be confirmed with an evidentiary blood test

QUESTION 14: Do you think an infringement offence (an instant fine and demerit points) or a criminal penalty (mandatory licence qualification, fines and possible imprisonment) is appropriate for the offence of drug driving?

We consider that an infringement notice for a first offence is appropriate, although higher levels of impairment as demonstrated on an impairment test, and also subsequent offences, might warrant criminal penalties.

QUESTION 15: Is there any other penalty or action in response to the offence of drug driving that you think should be considered?

Understanding the causes of offending and addressing those is usually preferable to simple punishment. We would encourage the Government to look creatively at this.

QUESTION 16: Do you think it is reasonable to penalise drivers who have used drugs, but may not be impaired?

No. The issue we need to address is road incidents caused by impaired driving. Punishing non-impaired drivers does nothing to address that.

QUESTION 17: Do you have anything else you would like to say about drug driving?

Cannabis law reform will have an impact on workplace drug testing and on the enforcement of traffic regulations. Concerns around this have been voiced by employers, unions and the NZ Police. It should be noted, however, that substance testing for impairment is an ineffective health and safety procedure. It rarely tests the number one drug of abuse in the workplace (alcohol) and does not test impairment from cannabis use but rather the presence of long-lived cannabis metabolites.

Cannabis law reform will require that we address these difficult issues, as the simple presence of cannabis metabolites will no longer be grounds for punitive action.

The issue of impairment is not just about cannabis use. Impairment can arise from sleep deprivation, relationship problems, pharmaceutical products and a range of other conditions that are difficult to individually test for.

For this reason:

  • We recommend that driving under the influence of cannabis is prohibited as per existing regulations on impairment.
  • We also recommend that the Government investigate impairment testing (as opposed to substance testing) as a more accurate measure of actual impairment in the workplace.

We also wish to highlight this comment, made publicly by researcher Dr Geoff Noller, PhD, Department of General Practice and Rural Health, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago; in relation to cannabis impairment while driving.

“This is a complicated question, with interpretations of data often ‘muddied’ by unclear data or analyses that conflate historic use of cannabis with actual impairment. Having noted this, a recent detailed US analysis by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA), following the legalisation of cannabis in a number of US states suggests that when data are correctly analysed, there appears to be either no elevated crash risk associated with cannabis only, or even a reduced risk of crashes.”



The People of New Zealand Are Owed a Proper Choice

The People of New Zealand Are Owed a Proper Choice

This article first appeared on

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 cannabis referendum will be held at 2020 election.

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.

Binding Referendum on Legalising Cannabis for Personal Use to Be Held at 2020 Election

Binding Referendum on Legalising Cannabis for Personal Use to Be Held at 2020 Election

This article first appeared on

The referendum is part of Labour’s confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party, but wording of the question is yet to be confirmed.

Justice Minister Andrew Little says the Electoral Commission will now get on and start planning for it.

“Having made the decision now, the Electoral Commission has put together a budget bid for the budget process next year. So … we’ll now process that budget bid. It obviously will attract budget confidentiality, so we’ll know about that next May.”

Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick said on Twitter the party was proud the referendum would go ahead.

“We’ve long advocated for a binding referendum with legislation setting out a clear, evidence-based regulatory framework. That way, we avoid a Brexit-type situation figuring out what a ‘yes’ vote means after the fact, and cut grey moral panic from the debate.”

The Cannabis Referendum Coalition welcomed the timing, saying it would maximise turnout.

However, it was disappointed that there wasn’t clarity on the referendum question.

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick in Select Committee
Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick said the party was proud the referendum would go ahead. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

“Our Coalition reiterates our preference for a two-part question that asks firstly whether people support adults being able to possess and grow cannabis for personal use, and secondly whether they support adults being able to buy cannabis from licensed premises. This could be in the form of a modular bill, which allows one or both divisions to be passed depending on the outcome of the referendum,” spokesperson Sandra Murray said.

“Having said that, we will be campaigning hard for a yes vote to any progressive question. We are excited to be having the debate. We are focusing on supporting local areas to have an informed discussion about how reform will benefit their community, as well as how potential problems will be avoided. We already have a network of regional groups to support this.”

National Party leader Simon Bridges questioned the government’s motivation for holding the referendum at the same time as a general election.

“I’m pretty cynical that you’ve got a government here that wants to distract from the core issues of a general election like who’s best to govern, their actual record in government over the last three years, and core issues around the economy, tax, cost of living, health, education, law and order.”

And he said the government had already effectively decriminalised cannabis through the medicinal cannabis bill.

“Now you’re allowed loose leaf out on the streets and the truth is they’ve said to police, you don’t need to prosecute this so right now, if someone’s smoking cannabis outside a school what are the consequences? What’s the message?”

Mr Bridges said he had never smoked cannabis.

Three Referendums?

Legal cannabis could be one of potentially three referenda – decisions have yet to be made about euthanasia and changes to electoral laws.

Whether or not there would be a euthanasia referendum was up to the ACT leader, David Seymour, as he continued work on his member’s bill, and the select committee considering it, said Mr Little.

“David has certainly told me that he fully expects that there would be a referendum clause in that bill when it gets reported back or goes through the House again.”

Discussions were ongoing about a question on possible changes to electoral law – specifically to lower the party vote threshold to four percent, and remove the so-called ‘coat-tailing’ provision.

Flying the Flag for Cannabis Law Reform

Flying the Flag for Cannabis Law Reform

This article first appeared on

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.”

Getting Serious About the Cannabis Referendum

Getting Serious About the Cannabis Referendum

This article first appeared on

The organisers of last Friday’s Cannabis Referendum Conference had a specific aim: they wanted to demonstrate that they, as the Cannabis Referendum Coalition, represented a credible, serious and organised campaign for New Zealand’s forthcoming vote on legalising cannabis.

They didn’t have a lot of money to work with and for some time they weren’t sure whether they could fill the room at Wellington’s James Cook Hotel. They cut costs by bring their own baking for morning and afternoon tea (no, not that sort of baking). But by the end of the day, they had filled the room and they justifiably believed they’d achieved what they set out to do.

“There are a lot of new people in the room,” said Norml New Zealand president Chris Fowlie in his opening remarks, and he was right.

There were Members of Parliament speaking and Ministry of Justice officials listening. There were people from the New Zealand Drug Foundation, which has a practice of putting a careful distance between itself and cannabis activists. There was an economist, academics and a friend of reform from the wine industry. And there were a lot of people who don’t actually use cannabis.

Most notably, the coalition’s coordinator, environmental consultant Sandra Murray, who told the crowd she’s never used cannabis – and also that her first activism, in her early 20s, was for cannabis law reform. There were others – including a few names that might surprise – who no longer use cannabis. Conference organiser (and former Norml president) Phil Saxby is one. They were there for the principle.

There are, of course, others yet whose consumption would more than make up for the non-partakers. Cannabis activism in its familiar forms isn’t going away. There was a protest a couple of days later on Armistice Day, to recall the victims of the War on Drugs (which didn’t involve smoking but did feature e-bikes) and Dakta Green is set to shake things up again (which certainly will involve smoking).

But the fact that Hikurangi Enterprises founder Manu Caddie could declare  on the day’s first panel 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” and no one took any obvious offence said a lot about the underlying theme of unity in the coalition.

One decision by conference organisers had a strong bearing on the remarkably high signal-to-noise ratio of the proceedings. You know how sometimes a few people at public events tend to turn their questions from the floor into lengthy speeches, or get fractious with speakers on stage? Cannabis activism can be like that to a factor of 10. On Friday, delegates were asked to pop their written questions into a basket on the front table. It was a game-changer.

That first panel was about lessons learned from medicinal cannabis advocacy. Rebecca Reider, the first New Zealander to win the right to indiviually import prescribed cannabis products (it didn’t last), noted the generally positive of media to her battle and observed that “finding ways to keep the media engaged is going to be important.”

Shane Le Brun of Medical Cannabis Awareness NZ reported a less positive experience with the political process. The key lesson he’d learned, he said was: “Don’t trust politicians.”

“I agree with everything everyone’s said,” responded Chloe Swarbrick MP, “including that you can’t trust politicians.”

She, too, talked about mainstreaming the campaign and welcoming “voices that aren’t usually heard in this space,” including Grey Power.

She said that among politicians, “there’s a presumption of conservatism” in the electorate “that I don’t think really exists”, and that she’d decided to wade into the broader issue of drug law reform because of the continuing surge of synthetics deaths. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t.”

Shortly afterwards, she tweeted:

It’s grossly irresponsible to pretend cannabis doesn’t come with any harm, or that its legalisation will be some silver bullet. But we have to realise harm presently is increased under a prohibitionist model that shuns responsible regulation.

Let’s talk about Chloe. Had she, in an alternative universe, won the Auckland mayoralty – or simply decided that politics wasn’t for her – there would be a gaping Chloe-sized hole in the Parliament. Her discipline, frankness, networking and nerdy ability to absorb and articulate the detail is going to be critical to any kind of drug law reform for as long as she’s an MP.

For the first, and not the last time, the question of a not-for-profit-at-retail regulatory model came up. Many longtime activists are much keener on this idea than is generally recognised. Or to put it another way, they’re possibly more concerned about Big Cannabis than you are. Manu Caddie said that as a prospective producer, he would be happy with that – and also liked the Canadian move to allow for small producers.

There was general agreement that the Ministry of Health, which has handled the medical cannabis legislation, was under-resourced and sometimes obstructive.

“Labour,” sighed Rebecca Reider, “have let the Ministry of Health run the show.”

A Labour MP was up on the next panel: Greg O’Connor, along with New Zealand Initiative economist (and best-dressed man in the room) Eric Crampton.

O’Connor, a police sergeant before his 21-year tenure as president of the Police Association, said that in his experience, cannabis had never really been a big deal for police. (There were a few rumblings in the audience when he characterised the police approach in recent years as one of de facto decriminalisation, but more of that later.)

“You get to a stage where the illegality causes more harm than the drug,” he said, concluding that ”Whatever we do, it must deal with supply. If we’re going to do this, let’s do it properly.”

Crampton fretted that an excess of caution in pursuit of a referendum question most likely to pass could result in result in a proposition that was “far too conservative”.

He commended Canada’s legalisation model, which defined “a national framework allowing for local variation.” I wasn’t so sure about his view that regulation here would be as simple as crossing out the word “alcohol” in liquor regulations and substituting “cannabis”. It would be nice to think we could do better than we’ve done with alcohol.

I put that to Chloe Swarbrick while we waited for another Labour MP, Ginny Anderson, to arrive (she’d been delayed helping a constituent) for the panel I was moderating and she agreed.

The Act Party, National’s Chris Bishop and New Zealand First’s Jenny Marcroft had all been invited and sent their apologies, so it was just me and the two MPs for the unusually long running time of 90 minutes. And it was great. They were frank, thoughtful and relaxed and I was able to sprinkle in some good questions from the floor. Their desire for an effective public engagement process and concerns about big business capture seemed widely shared in the room.

Both MPs believed there was still time to run the referendum along with next year’s local body elections (the alternative is as part of the 2020 general election). I genuinely don’t think so. No engagement and information process can start until it’s funded in Budget 2020. There’s certainly not the time for the optimum process – asking the public to vote up or down on a fully worked-up new bill – even given the Drug Foundation’s useful contribution of a model cannabis law.

I suspect any affection for a 2019 date is more to do with the fact that a cannabis question on the ballot would dominate the general election campaign. As much as both MPs would like to see law reform, there are other things to campaign on at a general election. But that’s the position the government has put itself in.

They both agreed that it would be nice to see the kind of decent, deliberative conscience politics we last saw with the marriage equality bill. That will take some doing, but there is a fledgling law reform caucus to build on.

We also talked about what I think is one of the key regulatory questions: price. We’re used to using price as a public health lever with alcohol and tobacco. But if we’re to see regulated natural cannabis as a tool in helping curb demand for synthetics (no one thinks it will actually end synthetics use), setting prices high won’t help that. This stuff isn’t simple.

It was the first time I’ve met Ginny Anderson and I was impressed. She has a long record of policy advisory experience, in ministerial offices and subsequently with the NewZealand Police, which I think makes her a good choice to be the point MP on drug reform issues that Labour currently lacks. Justice minister Andrew Little has plenty of other fish to fry and David Clark hasn’t made anyone happy with his handling of medicinal cannabis reform as Minister of Health.

Proceedings after lunch were kicked off with a stirring video message from former Prime Minister Helen Clark, emphasising unity of purpose and concluding with the conference hashtag: “Make It Legal”.

Manu Caddie returned with Will Ilolahia and Chris Wilson on a panel devoted to Māori and Pasifika perspectives on the referendum. Everyone agreed that the old people in their communities were wary and conservative and would need to respectfully consulted.

“They can see the damage that happens in Māori communities,” said Chris.

Manu talked about his background in community work and how he’d helped set up the country’s first cannabis cultivation course at EIT in Ruatoria, after Hikurangi got permission to produce hemp. And how his first investors were two kuia who’d pooled their pensions.

“It was for their moko,” he said quietly, choking up as he recalled it. “They knew they wouldn’t live to see this industry to fruition, but it was for their kids and grandkids.”

He also made the interesting point that New Zealand already has a good brand for a regulated cannabis market – as evidenced by the Canadian producer Maricann’s launch this year of its Kiwi brand, offering strains called White Feather (High CBD), Hawke’s Bay (Balanced), Nelson’s Blue (Mid THC) and Flightless Bird (Mid-High THC), described by the company as “playful takes on Kiwi’s New Zealand-inspired name.”

It was time then for coalition representatives to talk. Sandra Murray explained the “networked campaign” model, with groups from different regions and communities under the coalition umbrella. The campaign need more people from rural communites and non-Pakeha, and “There’s a shortage of women in the cannabis reform area.”

She also emphasised the need for “focus and discipline”. As I noted above, she’s not a user herself, but she does know about advocacy. The pushback on single-use plastic bags? That was her campaign.

Chris Fowlie addressed a common question: what’s Norml’s role if cannabis is legalised? “Vigilance,” he said, and upholding consumer rights.

Victoria University criminologst Dr Fiona Hutton was up next, and pulled no punches.

“The way we talk about people who use drugs needs to be changed,” she declared. “We are all drug users.”

Regulating cannabis would not solve the synthetic cannabis problem, she said. People using synthetics were a different kind of user, one that that actually seeks the dissociative effects of synthetic cannabinoids.

“There is no academic evidence for the gateway hypothesis,” about cannabis, she continued.

Noting that most drug prosecutions in New Zealand are for cannabis possession, she addressed the “de facto decriminalisation” issue. Although the numbers say that cannabis prosecutions have dropped sharply in the past 10 years, the social and racial biases remain.

“De facto decriminalisation [by police] simply deepens the injustices in the system,” she concluded.

I sat in on one of the campaign workshops that followed, which tended to emphasise the point about the diversity in the room. Sitting next to each other were Suzanne Kendrick, a Pakeha community organiser from Grey Lynn who works in the wine industry, and Tipene, who works at NorthTec and whose students had raised the money for him to attend. She’s been to California to see what’s going on with legalisation. He’s been to prison for cannabis supply.

The final job of the conference was to amend as necessary and approve its resolutions (which I’ve posted in the comments below). For the first time all day, there was a bit of tetchiness, over the resolution proposing a two-part question (one on legalising use and possession, the other on regulated supply), which was retained, and one from the floor calling for the Police to  declare a moratorium on cannabis prosecutions, which was not included.

On the former, I find myself less of a conservative than the activists. I think it’s too soon to allow for the possibility of decriminalisation without legalisation, which is what the two-part question would effectively do, and there is time yet to go for proposition (if not a bill) with enough detail to reassure voters who want reassuring. I’m personally leaning towards the non-profit-at-retail model, something like cannabis social clubs, which is difficult even for opponents to construe as weed on the high street.

Speaking of opponents – who are they? There will likely be some influential groups against legalisation, depending on the actual question, but the New Zealand Medical Association, for example, isn’t going to campaign. The only thing that looks like a “No” campaign so far is Family First, and I’m not sure their brand is going to help. It seems possible that the Cannabis Referendum Coalition might find itself, to use a rugby analogy, in the position of an unopposed maul.

The final act of the day was an articulate and impassioned set of closing remarks from the first MP to actively champion cannabis law reform, and now Whakatane District councillor, Nándor Tánczos. He smoothed any ruffled feathers from the resolution debate and and brought it all back to the key themes of unity, purpose, discipline and justice.

After that, organisers and delegates grinned for endless group photos to mark the day. They looked happy. And they had a right to.