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Legal cannabis in New Zealand? Kiwis are voting on more than just Jacinda Ardern today


New Zealand is putting the legalisation of cannabis to popular vote. (Unsplash: Thought Catalog)


The moniker the Land of the Long White Cloud could soon take on a new meaning in New Zealand if its citizens vote to legalise recreational marijuana use in an overshadowed referendum this weekend.


Key words:

  • Uruguay and Canada are the only two countries to fully legalise smoking pot at a national level

  • NZ's reform includes allowing Kiwis aged 20 and over to buy up to 14 grams of dried marijuana a day

  • Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt's spokesperson says the Australian Government does not support legalising cannabis for recreational use

It is the first time a country is putting the legalisation of recreational cannabis use to a popular vote.


And it will happen alongside a national election that will either re-elect Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern or install her conservative National Party rival Judith Collins in the top job.


In normal times, a dramatic reform like this would be a hot election issue, but in a campaign dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, cannabis is not getting much of a look in.


If it happens, New Zealand would join Uruguay and Canada as the only countries to fully legalise smoking pot at a national level, and a swathe of other countries that have all relaxed their approach to it.


Eleven US states have also done it, while Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden plans to decriminalise cannabis use at a federal level if elected next month.


The outcome could impact Australia too, with some progressive politicians here calling for us to follow the Kiwis' lead.

The proposed reform allows New Zealanders to grow up to two cannabis plants for personal use.(ABC Rural: Anthony Pancia)


What is New Zealand considering?


If passed, New Zealanders aged 20 and over will be able to buy up to 14 grams of dried marijuana a day as well as each grow two cannabis plants.


They could buy it from a licensed premise, such as a dispensary, and use it on a private property or an approved venue.


The proposed legislation restricts advertising and caps market share to ensure no single cannabis producer can dominate the market.


It also creates an excise tax for cannabis products, meaning an extra revenue stream for the New Zealand Government.


The purpose of the reform is to reduce cannabis-related harm, eliminate the black market trade, control the quality of cannabis and reduce the chance of young people getting their hands on it.


A scientific dope dive Does medicinal cannabis work? Take a look at the evidence for different conditions.

Will it pass?


It is looking less likely, but some are optimistic that the vote will be successful.


Support has dropped over the past year; according to well-regarded pollster Colmar Brunton, of those polled in September, only 35 per cent wanted smoking pot legalised.


That is down from 40 per cent in June and 43 per cent in November last year.


Those figures are in line with another recent poll, by Newshub Reid-Research, that found 50.5 per cent were against it and 37.9 per cent in favour.


But according to a poll last week by the Helen Clark Foundation and the New Zealand Drug Foundation, 49 per cent of those polled supported the change while 45 per cent opposed it.

A close-up of a cannabis flower growing in Colorado in the US which has a legal marijuana industry.(Supplied: Jimmy Dula)


It is worth noting Helen Clark, the former prime minister, is pro-cannabis reform, as is the NZ Drug Foundation.

"It's just a no-brainer to stop wasting our taxpayers' money with police helicopters hovering over the Kiwi bush, hounding ordinary citizens who are having a joint of cannabis rather than a glass of wine," Ms Clarke said in July.

But even if more than 50 per cent of the population voted 'yes', recreational cannabis would not become legal straight away, or possibly at all — the incoming government would still need to put it to parliament.


Ms Collins, the leader of the centre-right National Opposition, said her party would oppose it, while Ms Ardern, who has admitted to using cannabis in the past, is not saying how she will vote in the referendum.


Breaking the law for pain relief A growing number of senior Australians are buying homemade medicinal cannabis products for pain relief, despite it being early days in scientific research to support the drug's effectiveness.

Is Australia taking note?


Punters in Australia are watching closely what is happening across the Tasman.


Australia is a country that widely supports decriminalisation of marijuana — and that's reflected in the government's own data.


According to the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, 74 per cent of Australian's do not support possession of cannabis as a criminal offence.


And according to its 2020 survey, cannabis was the most commonly used illicit drug in Australia last year, with 11.6 per cent of Australians using it.


Cannabis also had a higher level of personal approval of regular use by an adult than tobacco for the first time in the surveys history — 19.6 per cent compared with 15.4 per cent.

Medicinal cannabis and hemp is legal to grow in Australia, however recreational cultivation is illegal.(ABC Rural)


The Australian Greens have latched on to figures like these; they proposed decriminalisation and the creation of a recreational cannabis industry in the 2019 federal election, and are sticking with the policy.


"When New Zealand successfully legalises cannabis, it will be a massive signal to the Australian Government that giving people access to cannabis is good policy," Greens leader Adam Bandt told the ABC.

"If done correctly, it reduces harm, increases protections for vulnerable people, and breaks the business model of criminal gangs, so by failing to recognise the benefits of legalising recreational cannabis, the Government is ignoring the massive benefits of a controlled industry."

The Greens won't win an election outright, but legalising cannabis could be one of its demands if Labor ever needs help forming a minority government in future.


Ms Arden won the support of the NZ Greens Party in 2017 by agreeing to legalise cannabis via this referendum, so it's not as far-fetched as you might think.


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Some pro-cannabis politicians at a state level are also watching NZ closely, such as Victoria Upper House MP Fiona Patten, NSW Upper House MP Rose Jackson, and Michael Pettersson in the ACT.


"We followed New Zealand on giving women the vote and marriage equality, so maybe we will follow them on this important social issue," said Ms Patten, who is also a member of the Victorian inquiry currently looking into cannabis reform in that state.

"It is a sensible approach from a law and order approach, but also brings in much-needed tax revenue that is often hypothecated to health services and education."

But a spokesperson for the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, said the Australian Government did not support legalising cannabis for recreational use.

Jacinda Ardern is not saying how she will vote in the referendum.(ABC News: Kevin Nguyen)


"While many Australians may view cannabis use as harmless, almost a quarter of Australia’s drug and alcohol treatment services are being provided to people identifying cannabis as their principal drug of concern (roughly the same number of treatment episodes as for amphetamine use)," the spokesperson said.


The Australian Government's approach is to prevent uptake and delay first time use, to provide access to treatment and support services, and to prevent and disrupt the supply of cannabis to reduce availability.

But there's a footnote.


"However, issues relating to legalisation or decriminalisation of cannabis are predominantly matters for the states and territories," the spokesperson said.


The ACT is the only jurisdiction in Australia that has legalised cannabis for personal use (although the reforms didn't go as far as establishing a market for producing, buying and selling), and the Federal Government did not overturn those reforms despite having the power to.


"I see the ACT model as more decriminalisation rather than legalisation, but the Federal Government’s attitude to the ACT is interesting as they basically have a veto power on those laws, but they let it go," Ms Patten said.

THC and CBD

  • Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is used to treat symptoms including pain, nausea and muscle spasticity

  • It is associated with some of the intoxicating effects of cannabis

  • CBD is used to treat epilepsy and inflammatory disorders, and relieve pain

  • It does not produce any intoxicating effects

  • The TGA warns that THC is not appropriate for people with a history of psychosis, or a current mood or anxiety disorder


What reforms are Australia considering?


The only reforms being looked at here are in regards to low-dose medicinal cannabis products, such as cannabidiol (CBD) oil — definitely not as dramatic as New Zealand's proposal for a recreational industry, nor Mr Biden's pledge to legalise recreational use at a national level in America.


Who can get medicinal marijuana? The Federal Government has approved the sale of medicinal marijuana, but it still won't be easy for people to get a prescription.


Australia's drug regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, is currently considering a proposal that would make low-dose CBD products available over the counter by early next year.


Currently, people using medicinal cannabis products in Australia, even if they only contain CBD, need a script from a doctor to buy them.


However, these CBD products, which can be used to treat epilepsy, chronic pain and inflammation, anxiety and insomnia, do not contain THC, the psychoactive element that gets you high.


The take home?


While the Federal Government is supportive of the medicinal cannabis industry, don't expect any other changes at a national level in terms of recreational use any time soon, regardless of the New Zealand outcome. Originally published here: https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2020-10-17/legal-cannabis-referendum-as-new-zealand-votes/12771858

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