The final version of the draft Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill was released 1 May 2020. Our Policy Adviser Dr Alana Oakly read all 154 pages and has written this summary so you don’t have to.
On Friday the Government released the final draft Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill that we’ll all be voting on in the upcoming referendum. The draft Bill is strong policy, far stronger than our tobacco or alcohol laws. Unlike alcohol, there will be advertising bans and limits on potency. Unlike tobacco, retailers will need to be licensed to sell cannabis, and there will be limits on how much a person can buy. We don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this Bill is a world-leading piece of public health legislation.
We already knew general rules from the earlier draft released December. These included good public health regulations like Government control of the supply chain, a purchase age of 20 years, bans on advertising, and controls around labelling, packaging and potency. With the final draft Bill, we have a better picture about what legal cannabis in New Zealand will look like if the referendum passes in September.
We knew there would be some kind of potency limits for cannabis. We now know that a new agency called the Cannabis Regulatory Authority will be responsible for setting those limits for different classes of cannabis product. To do that, they’ll consult with a wide range of stakeholders including Māori and young people. They’ll look at current potency levels in NZ and consider how they can reduce problematic use, and prevent over-consumption, while reducing the size of the illicit market. The Government has suggested an initial maximum potency of 15% THC for cannabis flower and 5 mg THC per package for edibles.
This is a good starting point for further discussion. Setting a maximum potency level is an important way to promote safer cannabis use, and we’re pleased with the careful processes in place to make sure this is done well. At the same time, in order to squash the black market completely, it’s important that people who are already using high potency products can legally access them. The Bill ensures that any decision about maximum potency levels will balance current usage patterns with harm reduction goals in setting the potency limits.
A progressive excise tax will be imposed based on cannabis weight and potency (the higher the THC level, the higher the price). This will encourage users to consume lower potency products. A levy, like that applied to alcohol and gambling, will fund services to reduce cannabis harm. These price controls will help lower the overall use of cannabis while also drawing people away from the illicit cannabis market.
We don’t yet know exactly how much legal cannabis will cost, but the draft Bill asserts that the retail price of cannabis needs to balance reducing cannabis use with drawing people away from the illicit market.
Other than in licensed consumption spaces, it will only be legal to consume at home – not on the street, or in parks
We won’t be seeing Amsterdam-style cafes here. We will have consumption spaces, but in most venues, cannabis will be BYO. Smoke-free laws will apply. The spaces will be focused on providing a safe space to use so that people do not use cannabis in public. They’ll have strict opening hours, and will be hard to spot from the street so that they don’t attract new customers, particularly young people. They won’t be able to sell tobacco or alcohol, and will only have a limited range of food available, so they won’t become de-facto restaurants.
When giving out licences for specialist cannabis stores, the Cannabis Authority must give priority to not-for-profit entities that can demonstrate a social benefit to the community, and take into account where shops will be located. This means stores won’t be situated near schools or churches, and stores won’t be concentrated in poorer neighbourhood as has happened with bottle shops and pokies.
We are disappointed to see the draft Bill includes a ban on online sales. Being able to purchase online would mean people in rural communities, who are unlikely to have access to a licensed retail store, would have access to legal and regulated cannabis products.
The vast range of products found in the US like cannabis gummies and lollipops will not be permitted. Following the introduction of a legal cannabis regime, cannabis plants and seeds would be immediately approved for sale. Then it would be up to the Cannabis Authority to approve other products. Products that appeal to children and cannabis infused drinks will not be allowed. Edible cannabis products will need to be baked and sold at room temperature.
The intention is that new products not currently available in New Zealand won’t be allowed under the new regime. This will allow the Authority to slowly introduce new products if there is evidence their introduction won’t increase cannabis related harm.
We are very glad to see that communities, particularly those disproportionately harmed by prohibition, will benefit from this Bill. There will be a cultivation cap, with a quota set aside for production by small scale producers, and no company will be allowed to produce more than 20% of the cannabis supplying the legal market. When approving cultivation and retail licences, the Cannabis Authority is required to give more weight to applications that benefit communities affected by prohibition, particularly Māori, and people who are economically deprived.
Crucially, low-level drug convictions (such as possession) won’t stop people entering the legal cannabis market. This means communities who have been disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition will benefit though jobs and economic activity.
These low penalties are mostly fines - possessing more than 14g is a $200 fine, and there’s a $500 fine if you grow more than four, but fewer than ten, plants per household. Fines for sellingto people under 20 are much higher - they could see someone go to prison for up to four years. This is inconsistent with how we punish people selling tobacco and alcohol to young people (a $5000 fine for tobacco and $2000 for alcohol). But we expect the public will be pleased to see that the Government is taking the issue of underage purchase very seriously.
If a majority of New Zealanders vote “Yes” at the referendum, this Bill will go through the normal parliamentary processes to become law. This will include a select committee where the public has a chance to comment on the details of the Bill. So while the Bill is final for now, there will still be a chance to make changes after the referendum – not that we would change very much at all, to be fair!
The draft Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill is a world leading piece of Public Health informed policy. This referendum gives New Zealanders the opportunity of a lifetime to enact public health driven regulations that will minimise the social and health harms of cannabis.
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