Policy and Advocacy Manager Kali Mercier breaks down the Government’s draft Cannabis Bill and examines how it will impact Māori.
You may have heard by now that the cannabis referendum will take place on 19 September, alongside the election. New Zealanders will be given a yes/no choice to the question “do you support the Cannabis Control and Legalisation Bill”?
Right now the Bill is in early draft form. We’re expecting the final to be released in April this year, but we thought you might appreciate some interim thoughts on it.
First a disclaimer – whilst I’m immersed in the detail and my values lead me to focus strongly on Māori social justice issues, I’m Pākeha. So apologies in advance if I’ve missed anything. If you’ve got thoughts to add, I would love to engage on this – please email me.
So, what’s in the Bill and how does it stack up from a Māori perspective? My summary - it’s a thousand times better than what we have now. Despite any gripes I may have (see below for a couple), I would vote for it in a heartbeat.
It is not an overstatement to say that this Bill is a world-leading model of public health regulation. Its purpose is really clear – it’s about reducing the harms of cannabis use to individuals, families, whānau and communities by regulating its use and sale. It proposes a form of regulation that will allow cannabis to be controlled as a harmful drug, but without all the criminal injustices of prohibition.
How will that look? Cannabis will be regulated more strictly than alcohol, which causes so much harm in our communities. There’ll be a strict age limit for purchasing (of 20). Shops will be stand-alone, cannabis-only, with no advertising on the street - so you’ll barely notice they are there unless you are looking for them. Products will be controlled for potency and portion size and will carry health warnings – all the things that have worked so well to limit the harm caused by tobacco in this country over the last couple of decades (smoking rates have fallen substantially and keep going down). And taxes will be allocated to go towards drug-related health care, education and treatment.
In summary, the Bill is good news for Māori, who’ve always borne the brunt of both biased enforcement and the negative health effects of poor drug law. If it goes through it will mean better health outcomes, it will mean fewer arrests and convictions, it will mean fewer whānau going to prison.
Now to plunge into the detail of the Bill. As with everything, there are parts that work better for Māori and parts that don’t work as well. The bits that aren’t as good are things we will want to work on during the select committee process during the next parliamentary term (provided we win the referendum of course!).
Firstly, there is a space in the purpose statement of the Bill that’s not yet filled in, but promises to specify that Māori interests will be considered throughout the legal regime. The purpose statement may include specific provisions relating to partnership, participation, and protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi. This is excellent news but we don’t yet have the detail so it’s hard to get a good sense of how this will look. We’ll be expecting to hold the Government to task to make sure this section has some teeth.
There is some initial provision for Māori to be involved in implementation and evaluation – though it’s not as substantial as we would have liked. The draft Bill sets up an advisory committee to help the regulators set up a “national plan” to reduce cannabis harms, and the Government will be required to ensure that Māori are at the table in developing this. Māori will also be at the table when the Act comes up for review every five years. There isn’t yet detail about how much representation there will be and from whom, so this is another one to watch carefully.
Just as important will be for Māori to have a legislated role in the new Cannabis Regulatory Authority. This body will oversee regulation of the supply and use of cannabis in New Zealand, to promote wellbeing and reduce the use of (and harms caused by) cannabis. We don’t yet have detail in the Bill about how this will be constituted, so we’re watching this one, too.
When we spoke to Māori communities last year, two of the key issues raised were home grow and enforcement. People consistently told me that penalties for low-level and non-commercial breaches must be kept non-criminal at all cost, because criminal charges are so often enforced disproportionately against Māori.
The penalties in the Bill are a mixed bag. As a positive example, home grow is allowed, with a two-plant limit per adult, or four per household. But if you grow more than that - up to ten plants- you’ll just be liable for a fine, not a conviction. The government has obviously thought through the impacts of over-criminalisation and although they’ve settled on a low plant limit, they’ve built in a period of grace which will particularly benefit people who grow for their whānau, or those who grow medicinally.
One penalty provision we are concerned about though is that supplying cannabis to a person under 20 may carry a prison sentence of up to four years, or a huge fine. This seems extreme for ‘supply’ within a family setting, or from friend to friend, and we’d love to see the final Bill make a distinction between commercial and non-commercial supply. This is definitely something we will be following up on when the final Bill comes out, and if needed, bringing up at Select Committee next year.
Some other issues that impact Māori in particular don’t yet have detail put around them in the draft Bill, so we’ll need to wait until April to analyse those. That includes a picture of what the growing/buying/selling model will actually look like. We’ve been advocating for access to the market for small-scale growers, and for a model that keeps ‘big cannabis’ to a minimum. There’s also no decision yet on how a previous conviction may or may not limit access to the market.
Finally, there’s no word in the Bill around expungements of previous criminal cannabis convictions. That’s not surprising as a separate piece of legalisation may need to be drafted to sort that out, but it’s definitely something we can and should be pushing for now, while cannabis law is hot on the agenda. We’ll be doing that - and you might want to, too.
I look forward to providing you with a more detailed analysis when we get the final bill in a couple of months.
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