Cannabis Referendum - High on the Agenda
This month, the Labour-led Government confirmed there will be a referendum on legalising recreational cannabis held at the same time as the next election. The Green Party campaigned on cannabis law reform in 2017 and when it came time to do a deal with Labour for confidence and supply, they negotiated a binding referendum on recreational cannabis use before the 2020 election.
Recreational cannabis reform is inherently contentious and can be difficult to navigate for any Government, let alone this Government made up of a major party that did not campaign on the issue and New Zealand First whose voting base are ostensibly opposed to the idea. It has been fascinating to watch Labour, especially the PM, completely distance themselves from the issue. In an almost unheard-of move, we see brand new, junior backbench Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick fronting the discussion, appearing on all the major political chat shows and driving the policy debate. The Prime Minister and Justice Minister have largely been silent on the issue unless asked direct questions in the House by National's spokesperson for drug reform, Paula Bennett.
While I am highly supportive of a regulated medicinal cannabis regime, recreational cannabis law reform throws up a huge number of important questions that must be answered prior to a referendum so that voters know exactly what they are getting. The process that this Government is proposing falls far short of what I believe the public deserves for such a contentious law change.
We were promised by this Government that the referendum would be binding. For this to be the case, Parliament would pass an Act prior to the referendum that the public would then vote on. The Act would only come into force if the referendum succeeded. This would mean that New Zealanders would know exactly what they were voting for at the referendum and would allow a full process to be undertaken, with select committee scrutiny, expert input and thorough public consultation.
This option is no longer on the table. Instead what we will get is a 'draft law' which will be put forward by the Government without proper scrutiny and consultation. The referendum will then have a yes or no question that refers to this draft law – something along the lines of “Do you support legalising the personal use of recreational cannabis, in accordance with (published draft law)?” The Labour-led Government have promised that they will abide by the referendum results and pass the draft legislation into law.
The difficulty with this approach is that there will be no certainty as to what a law change would actually involve. The draft bill could, and most likely would, be further changed by the new Government or Parliament via the select committee process after New Zealanders cast their vote. This process leaves us with serious questions that will not be answered before the public are asked to vote on the issue at the referendum.
What would the tax rate be? Where could you purchase it? Where could it be consumed? What advertising would be allowed? Would edible lollies be legal? These are all important issues that should be ironed out prior to a referendum being held. We need to know how legalising cannabis would affect mental health, gang activity and the black market, and our target to be smoke-free by 2025. We need to know the effects of younger people accessing and using cannabis and the impact it has on development.
We need to know how legalising cannabis would fit with the urgent need to make our roads safer. In 2017, for the first time ever, there were more drug-impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes than there were drunk drivers.
National is lobbying the Government to adopt our bill to create a roadside drug testing regime, but it seems legalising personal cannabis use is higher on their agenda as they voted it down, twice.
In my view, these questions must be addressed prior to a referendum - New Zealanders need as much information as possible when casting their vote. The decision is too important not to know exactly what we are going to end up with.