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The final version of the draft Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill was released 1 May 2020. Our Policy Adviser Dr Alana Oakly outlines how the Bill addresses social equity.

Legalising cannabis will stop the injustices of prohibition. It will reduce unnecessary convictions and end the disproportionate harm experienced by Māori and people from lower income communities. But legalisation needs to be about more than just stopping the injustices of prohibition. It needs to be about righting wrongs and reversing the existing inequities that cannabis prohibition has caused.

There are lots of different ways to legalise – from a free market to a completely Government controlled market. The way we go about legalisation can affect the outcome just as much as legalising itself – so we need to do it well.

We’re relieved to see the Government’s newly-released Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill outlines a market model with strict regulations designed to reduce cannabis harms – many of the restrictions will be inherited from tobacco, but even stronger. Importantly, these health-based goals have a strong focus on reversing cannabis harms for the communities that have been most affected by prohibition.

In this article, I’ll outline some of the specific ways the Bill addresses social equity.

Māori will be actively involved in the development of cannabis regulations

Before the Bill came out, prominent Māori public health advocates and academics called for cannabis regulations to be designed with and by Māori, to ensure Māori voices were properly represented in discussions. We’re pleased to see that the draft Bill considers Māori and acknowledges Te Titiri by making sure:

  • The Cannabis Regulatory Authority, which will oversee the implementation of the legislation, is required to develop meaningful relationships with iwi and Māori representatives who are experts in this area
  • The Cannabis Advisory Committee (which will advise on specific regulations, such as maximum potency levels) includes iwi and Māori representatives who are experts
  • The five-year review of the Bill is conducted by an independent body with iwi and Māori representation.

The Bill also includes regulations to make sure Māori directly benefit from a regulated cannabis market. That includes favouring cultivation licence applications that directly benefit Māori through partnerships, jobs, or other social benefits to the community.

The Cannabis Authority will be required to apply cannabis levies and excise taxes fairly between people who grow, sell and buy cannabis. That means the cost of regulating cannabis won’t fall on Māori, who are more likely to experience cannabis harm than non-Māori.

Although these provisions should ensure Māori benefit from the Bill, we’re concerned some aspects won’t work as well - for example the limit of four cannabis plants per household. This limit may particularly affect Māori, who are more likely to live in larger households. This also fails to recognise that in many whānau, one member is responsible for growing cannabis for the extended family. This could put them at risk under the new law.

Licences to sell cannabis will favour those who benefit the community

It’s really important that any legal market puts people first. We were glad to see the Cannabis Regulatory Authority will have to consider how well each cultivation licence application addresses social equity. Applications that involve communities which have been disproportionately harmed by cannabis prohibition will get preference, as will those which generate a social benefit, and any that provide jobs for Māori and those from economically deprived communities.

We’re also pleased that small-scale growers will have a head start in the new cannabis market. A portion of the market will be reserved for them, with special micro-cultivation licences. That means small-scale growers, who may not have the money to start a larger business, will be able to get a foot in the market and compete against larger companies. This should have the added benefit of promoting economic development in rural communities.

Some licences to sell cannabis will go to non-profit organisations that help the community

The Drug Foundation advocated for a retail model that puts people over profit, and the Bill does not disappoint. When deciding who gets a licence to sell cannabis, the Cannabis Authority will prioritise non-profit organisations committed to benefiting the community they’ll be selling cannabis in. We don’t know exactly how this will look yet, but it means that at least some cannabis shops will promote community development over profit.

This might mean that a public health-focussed charity could set up in retail with the express purpose of attempting to minimise cannabis harm in their communities, for example. It’s a novel idea and we’d like to see the Government support non-profit organisations, to encourage more applications from those motivated by community development.

The Authority will also consider location, and whether the presence of a new shop will negatively affect the community. That means we won’t be seeing cannabis outlets near schools or churches, and low-income neighbourhoods won’t become overrun with them either. We’re particularly glad the Government has learned from the mistakes we’ve seen with pokies and liquor stores, which are often clustered in disadvantaged areas.

Penalties for breaking the new law won’t cause further harm

Part of the Drug Foundation’s kaupapa is to reduce drug-related convictions – which impact Māori and people under 30 more than others. The last thing we want is for the illegal system to be replaced with a legal system that imposes harsh penalties, so we’re pleased the Bill does not impose unnecessarily harsh penalties for most offences.

For the most part, committing an offence under the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill will result in an infringement fee instead of a criminal conviction. For example there’s a $500 fee if you grow more than four – but fewer than ten – cannabis plants per household. That’s good news for people growing their own cannabis for medicinal reasons, who often need to grow multiple plants. For some people $500 is a high fine that may be difficult to pay, but it’s better than a criminal conviction as is currently the case.

Although most of these fines are justifiable, some still seem too high – like the potential $1000 penalty for smoking cannabis around someone under 20.  We’re worried this could lead to disproportionate impacts on the same groups who have suffered most under prohibition, like Māori and people with lower incomes – and it’s out of step with how we tackle people smoking tobacco around children in the home. Education would be a more compassionate, and ultimately less harmful, way to encourage people not to smoke any substances around young people.

The draft Bill also includes some more extreme penalties. For example, selling cannabis to someone under 20 could result in a four-year prison term. Although we support stiffer penalties for adults selling to underage kids, it doesn’t make sense to impose prison sentences on kids who sell to other kids – we would have preferred to see different penalties apply depending on who was doing the selling. But overall, the Bill strikes a good balance between enforcement and trying to reduce unnecessary convictions.

Infringement offence Maximum penalties
Growing more than 4 plants per household $500 fee, or $1000 fine
Buying more than 14g of cannabis in a day $200 fee, or $500 fine
Using cannabis in public $200 fee, or $500 fine
Person under 20 possessing cannabis $100 fee, or $200 fine, or a referral to a health service
Exposing a person under 20 to cannabis emissions $500 fee, or $1000 fine
Offences Max penalties 
Selling cannabis to someone under 20 Individual: 4 years in prison
Business: $150,000 fine
Unlicensed selling of cannabis  Individual: 2 years in prison
Business: $100,000 fine
Supplying cannabis to someone under 20 $5000 fine
Knowing import or export of cannabis Individual: 2 years in prison
or $10,000 fine
Business: $50,000 fine
Growing 10 or more cannabis plants 3 months in prison or $2,000 fine

Low level cannabis convictions won’t exclude people from the legal market

Communities that have been disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition will benefit from jobs and economic activity. As a bonus, allowing those with previous cannabis convictions to grow and sell cannabis legally will help decrease the illicit market by providing legal job opportunities.
We’ve always advocated for people with low-level cannabis convictions, like possession, to be able to take part economically in the regulated market. So we’re pleased that these minor convictions won’t stop people from getting licenced. This will be particularly good for Māori, who disproportionately carry the burden of cannabis convictions.

We’re advocating for a Yes vote

This September, New Zealanders will have the opportunity of a lifetime to vote for a regulated cannabis market. Overall, we think the draft Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill contains a good balance of policies that will reduce cannabis harm, while reversing the harms already caused by prohibition. This is one of the many reasons we’re advocating for a Yes vote at the upcoming referendum.

Help us win the Yes Vote - donate to our PledgeMe campaign.

Or for more information, check out the Government's cannabis referendum website.

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