We answer some of the more frequently asked questions about New Zealand's 2020 Cannabis Referendum.
Please contact us if you don’t find the answer to your question here.
Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in New Zealand. Nearly half of all adult New Zealanders have tried cannabis some time in their lives, and 590,000 adults used cannabis in the last year. Use is higher in Māori, young people and those in more deprived neighbourhoods.
In the last 10 years, 41,000 people were convicted of a cannabis offence, and 6,200 of those were sent to prison. In 2019, about 2,700 people received a conviction for cannabis offences, and around 60 percent of those were for low-level offences such as possession and use. The people convicted are mostly young, Māori, and male. Just one conviction has a major impact on someone’s life and their opportunities to get a job, travel and even get credit.
Cannabis prohibition costs New Zealand a lot of money. Each year, we spend almost $200 million and over 330,000 Police hours on cannabis enforcement and convictions. We’d like to see these resources put towards policing serious crimes.
Most people who use cannabis do so without causing much or any damage to themselves. But a small proportion experience negative impacts, and in some cases these can be severe. These risks increase among people who start using cannabis at a younger age and use heavily. Impacts can include anxiety, depression, memory loss and mood swings. Cannabis use is associated with an increased risk of psychosis and other mental illnesses.
In other words, cannabis can cause harm - so our laws need to focus on reducing that harm, not increasing it as they do now.
Tightening public health regulations gives our best chance at reducing cannabis-related harms. The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill regulates potency, packaging, pricing and portion size. Public education campaigns will inform people about the harms from cannabis and encourage people to consume less.
We might see cannabis use go up slightly, especially in the early days because of the novelty factor. We can probably expect some people who would not normally use cannabis to use it from time to time. As well as this, people may also be more likely to report their use under a legal market. The good news is that irregular use is not harmful for most people, in the same way that an occasional glass of wine doesn’t usually cause problems.
We know that a year after Canada legalised cannabis, overall use patterns have barely changed. In US States which have legalised, cannabis use in young people has decreased.
Health issues are more likely for people who use frequently, heavily or use high potency products. That’s why the most important statistic to track after legalisation will be daily use figures rather than yearly use. Daily use statistics are a good proxy for tracking harmful trends such as heavy use and dependence.
Encouragingly, daily use rates (i.e heavy use) have not changed in Canada since legalisation, and this is true for all age groups.
Whether or not cannabis use goes up will depend on the model that we have in place. There are key public health interventions we know impact on use – including bans on advertising and controls on pricing.
The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill includes a number of policies like these that prioritise public health. Because of these policies, we expect harmful cannabis use will go down here after legalisation, especially over the longer term.
The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill encourages people to consume less often and consume less potent products. A levy will allocate funds for drug education and treatment, meaning those who are struggling with their use or are likely to run into problems down the track can get help.
Both illegal and legal substances create health and safety risks in our workplaces. By making cannabis legal it doesn’t follow that more people will turn up to work impaired by cannabis, in the same way that most people do not drink alcohol at work now.
Just as with alcohol, with cannabis we can also do things to limit or eliminate risks from impaired workers. Under legal regulation we can set clearer health and safety standards and improve education and monitoring in our workplaces.
Workplaces that already have robust alcohol and drug health and safety systems are well equipped to manage impairment risks from cannabis. Employers and employees should work together now to introduce good drug policies for their workplace.
The best way to reduce impairment in the workplace is through quality management, a culture of reporting health and safety risks, and a system that encourages people to speak up if they notice someone is impaired.
The Drug Foundation has published information and advice for workplaces.
Under legal regulation, drug driving will stay illegal. The Government is introducing a new drug driving law to help Police do roadside drug driving tests. This will be ready in time for the referendum.
Legalisation of cannabis will mean Police have the tools they need to better detect and enforce the law, as well as improved drug driving education.
While medicinal cannabis is now legal in New Zealand with a prescription, only a small number of products are available, and those available are very expensive. This means medicinal cannabis products are out of reach of most New Zealanders who need them, even those with life threatening or debilitating conditions.
Legal cannabis would mean easier access to a wider range of products and more affordable prices. Patients will be able to access the medicine that works for them without fear of prosecution.
The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill restricts cannabis sales and use to adults over 20-years old. This sends a very clear message that cannabis is for adults only.
Another way we can send that clear message to young people is through better drug education in schools, which will have extra funding from the new tax on cannabis.
The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill has very tough punishments for those who sell or supply cannabis to young people.
Only specialist stores licenced by the government will be able to sell cannabis.
We don’t yet know how much legal cannabis will cost, but we do know that one of the purposes of the Bill is to ensure that the retail price of cannabis reflects a “balance between the harm reduction objectives that seek to lower the overall use of cannabis… at the same time, drawing people away from the illicit cannabis market”.
Cannabis use will be allowed in private homes and specifically licensed premises. People won’t be allowed to use cannabis in public.
Yes, limits on potency will be set within the regulations. 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 of THC per package for edibles. This is a good starting point for further discussion.
There will also be a progressive excise tax for cannabis producers to pay on fresh cannabis, based on weight and potency (the higher the THC level, the higher the price). This will encourage users to consume lower potency products. This is good because high potency products can be risky to vulnerable groups such as those who use heavily, and young people.
No advertising for cannabis products will be allowed, and consumer and health warnings will be required.
The legal cannabis market will be regulated by the Cannabis Regulatory Authority. The Agency will be responsible for things including:
People will be able to apply for a licence to either grow or sell cannabis. People won’t be able to hold licences for both at the same time, meaning no single company will have control over the entire market.
There will be a cap on the total amount of cannabis that can be cultivated, with a quota set aside for production by small scale producers. No company will be allowed to produce more than 20% of the entire 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. This includes partnerships and jobs for those disproportionately affected by prohibition, including Māori and those who are economically deprived.
Legalising cannabis will mean improvements in health, justice and economic development for Māori.
Māori are targeted by Police more under our drug law and are 3 times more likely to get a cannabis conviction than non-Māori with the same level of cannabis use. Legalisation will mean fewer Māori encountering the criminal justice system and fewer trapped in endless cycles of reconviction.
Legalisation will also improve health outcomes. Māori are twice as likely as non-Māori to suffer a substance use disorder, but they find it hardest to access health and treatment services. The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill puts money from cannabis taxes into health and prevention programmes that will benefit Māori.
The Bill aims to actively promote Māori access to the financial benefits that a new regulated market will bring. This will be especially important in the regions in which cannabis is a common crop. Legalisation will bring news jobs and income.
The Bill allows every person to grow two cannabis plants at home, or four per household. Allowing small-scale home cultivation was an important issue for Māori during the drafting of the Bill. It is often used as rongoa, to treat a variety of medical conditions. The home cultivation provisions will allow people to continue this practise but without fear of the law.
Read more about why this issue is important for Māori.
Decriminalisation of cannabis would mean people wouldn’t be criminalised for their cannabis use, but the black market would still control supply. Legalisation means the Government takes control over the cannabis market, from seed to sale. This means we can implement regulations that limit access to adults only and make cannabis safer. That’s not possible unless we legalise.
The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill has tighter regulations than both tobacco and alcohol, which is good news for public health.
No, expungements are not part of the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill. If cannabis is legalised it would make sense to examine whether past convictions for cannabis use should be removed from people’s records. This conversation is likely to be held separately to the conversation around whether we should legalise at all.
11 October 2020
Ross Bell asks people to look beyond their own experience, and understand how cannabis prohibition is impacting on others.
09 October 2020
A new editorial published in the NZMJ explores why a yes vote offers a net gain for public health.
08 October 2020
PM Jacinda Adern has refused to say how she'll vote in the cannabis referendum. Ross Bell pulls together her comments over the years, and co...
01 September 2020
A new report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor makes key findings supporting the Drug Foundation’s view that legalisation is t...
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