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How New Zealand is Prepping for Its Upcoming Cannabis Referendum

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Aug 01, 2019   
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Next year, New Zealand will hold the world’s first national referendum on cannabis legalization. 

Dubbed, the “reefer-endum,” a pro-cannabis outcome could see the country become the third nation in the world to fully legalize and regulate marijuana. 

With such an advent at stake, many in the international cannabis industry are keeping a close eye on each new referendum development. So, how are preparations going? 

Lighting up a reefer-endum

During the country’s 2017 general election, a three-way coalition between Ardern’s Labour Party, the Greens, and the nationalist party New Zealand First, beat out the incumbent prime minister Bill English and his National Party to form the country’s new government.

As a part of the confidence and supply agreement between the Labour Party and the Green Party, the new government was obligated to undertake a referendum on whether to legalize recreational cannabis use. 

While the requirement for a referendum had been known since the acceptance of the confidence and supply agreement, the formal announcement of the cannabis referendum came in December 2018, just one week after New Zealand’s law makers gave medical cannabis the green light. The announcement revealed that the recreational cannabis vote would take place during the country’s 2020 general election, which, at the latest, will fall on November 21, 2020. 

But, just as hemp hype was building in the country, the referendum’s great potential was soured in May by the announcement that its results would not be legally binding and would instead be up to the next administration to enact.  

Constitutional law expert Graeme Edgeler told Newsroom at the time that this essentially made the referendum “exactly as binding as any other political party promise prior to an election.”

Separate from this controversy, the May announcement also brought a first look at exactly what was being proposed by the draft legislation, which included: 

  • A minimum age of 20 to purchase and use recreational cannabis legally
  • Regulations that limit cannabis use and sales to license premises
  • Limited home cultivation options
  • A public cannabis education program

Research and public education ramp up

Earlier this week, an official bill was introduced into the country’s parliament, which – if it passes – will hold the referendum to many of the same rules as the concurrent general election, such as restricted advertising, which should ensure “a balance between freedom of expression and transparency” in the referendum. 

So, with the countdown to the referendum now on, the Government is knuckling down to produce more quality research and policy work ahead of the vote. 

Chief science advisor Juliet Gerrard has reportedly been tasked with producing a “short, authoritative, accessible and unbiased summary of the evidence for the harms and benefits of legalized cannabis.” 

The summary is intended to better inform the general public in the run up to the referendum and will include an assessment of the impacts of legal recreational cannabis. The final summary will then be peer-reviewed by the chief science advisor forum and several international experts.

Independent researcher and medical anthropologist Dr Geoff Noller told Newsroom that this type of research was going to be extremely important in the referendum. While New Zealand’s residents had a general idea about cannabis and its potential harms, Noller said, these ideas were often based on inaccurate stereotypes and generalizations. 

“There’s no such thing as a typical cannabis user,” Noller cautioned. 

The exact makeup of the panel of experts who will be assisting in the research and its reviewal is due to be announced next month, but Noller advised that it should include scientists, doctors, legal experts, educators, and anthropologists in order to deliver the sort of broad and informed report that would be the most beneficial to the public. 

Māori voices should also be an integral part of the analysis, he says, as the indigenous population has been harmed disproportionately by New Zealand’s current policy of prohibition. 

Medical cannabis education classes underway

Parallel to these public efforts, cannabis education programs for doctors and medical professionals are also in full swing as the country prepares for the opening of its medical cannabis program.

Professor Mike Barnes, director of education at the London-based Academy of Medical Cannabis, was recently in New Zealand running cannabis education classes for doctors. 

“There’s about 350 doctors, generally, [who we saw] across the board over the three days,” said Professor Barnes, in an interview with NewstalkZB, “Which is a really good turnout actually, really shows a lot of enthusiasm for the subject.”

“Doctors have never been trained in cannabis medicine, for obvious reasons, it’s been an illegal product, they haven’t been able to prescribe it until very recently. So I think it’s good that the people are [here] to learn, they’re keen, and they’re enthusiastic. Fundamentally, they didn’t have much prior knowledge, but it’s good that they’re there to learn and empower themselves to get the knowledge to be able to prescribe [more knowledgeably].”

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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