Cannabis vote: Lead-up needs to hit the public's sweet spot

6:23 pm on 19 December 2018

Opinion - Yesterday's announcement by Andrew Little that the government's promised referendum on legalising cannabis will be held in conjunction with the 2020 general election implies more than the mere naming of a date, Russell Brown writes.

50549923 - marijuana background. cannabis joint, bud in plastic bag and hemp leaves on wooden table. addictive drug or alternative medicine.

Photo: 123RF

Until now, the government has gamely insisted that the referendum could be held in either 2019 or 2020. In reality, there was no way a credible referendum process could play out in time for a vote next year. There was no funding for a process in this year's Budget, for one thing.

But the later date has an additional significance. It leaves time for the constitutionally optimal process: that when the time comes, New Zealanders will vote yes or no on a worked-up law that will tell us exactly how we would legalise cannabis - or, at the least, a proposal so detailed as to make very clear what the law would be.

Little himself has come a long way since he was named minister responsible for the referendum earlier this year. Back then, he admitted to me he had hadn't given "any depth of thought at all" to what a good referendum question might look like. The idea of having a ready-to-go law would be something the government would "have to think through", he said, and the referendum would probably not be binding. We now know that the referendum will be binding.

Opposition leader Simon Bridges suggested yesterday that the decision was one of "a government here that wants to distract from the core issues of a general election". I don't think that's the case.

All three governing parties, even the Greens, have been privately wary about the cannabis issue dominating the next election. It's not the issue any of them want to campaign on. But the alternative - spending taxpayers' money on a separate referendum day in the same year, for purely political reasons - presumably looked even less palatable.

What happens now will be interesting. After hinting more than once that he liked the idea of some form of deliberative democracy modelled on the "People's Jury" that guided Ireland's historic abortion referendum, Little said yesterday that that would not be an option. The New Zealand Drug Foundation has already hinted that it could run such a process itself.

orontonians gather at a local concert venue to watch the "bud drop" at the stroke of midnight, in celebration of the legalization of recreational cannabis.

Will New Zealand follow the example of Canada, where recreational cannabis use was legalised in October 2018? Photo: AFP

There's also the matter of what is to go in the law. "Legalising cannabis" in itself means little. Will it be legal to sell cannabis, or merely to use it? Who would be allowed to sell it? How would an industry be regulated? Will a New Zealand solution look more like Colorado and Canada - or Spain, where cannabis can be supplied only through non-profit social clubs? It's notable that some of the most dedicated cannabis activists favour the latter option.

No-one has more stake in law reform than Māori communities, who have suffered the greatest harms both from cannabis use and the enforcement of laws against it. Māori must be prominently included in any process.

Khylee Quince

Khylee Quince Photo: SUPPLIED

It may be, as AUT's Khylee Quince has suggested, that the gamebreaker will be a clear direction in the law that a historic conviction will not be a barrier to entry to a new, legal industry. Some US jurisdictions have gone further; specifically assisting minorities to take a stake in the new world.

I've spoken to the designers of the successful ballot propositions in Washington state and California. They both shared the same experience: people, they said, wanted reassurance. By using polling and focus groups, they were able to refine their propositions to that end - to find the sweet spot. Here, it will be the job of Parliament.

One thing is certain: any proposed law we're to vote on will need to be better and more clearly drafted than the medicinal cannabis bill that recently passed its third reading. As laudable as the bill might be, few people could read that text and immediately understand its purpose. That won't be good enough next time.

*Russell Brown is an Auckland-based journalist for Public Address and drug law reform advocate.

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