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Cannabis referendum decision before Christmas

The details of a referendum to legalise cannabis - including whether its results will be binding - are set to be announced before the end of the year, Justice Minister Andrew Little has confirmed.

The NZ Drug Foundation has welcomed the potential early Christmas present, warning there is plenty of work to be done if the referendum is to have the public’s confidence.

Work on the ballot began as a result of the Greens’ confidence and supply agreement with Labour, which included a commitment to hold a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis “at, or by, the 2020 general election”.

Speaking to Newsroom, Little said work on the referendum process was going well, with critical decisions likely to be made soon and shared with the public.

“I expect we will have decisions, finalised decisions, in the next few weeks - there’s a paper that has been just now circulating and I expect it will go to Cabinet as I say in the next three, four weeks.”

Little said the Cabinet paper presented options on whether the referendum should be binding, forcing the Government to act on the result, or not.

Justice Minister Andrew Little says the cannabis referendum cannot be held in conjunction with local government elections. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

NZ Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said there was an urgent need for clarity about the structure and timing of the referendum, given the need for Budget bids and other work from officials ahead of the vote.

“Because of the lack of clarity ... they can’t do a lot until the ministers have given them some direction.”

Bell said the foundation was also holding back on its own “public education” plans until it knew whether the referendum would be held in 2019 or 2020.

“A decision would be really great, a lot of us were expecting a decision much sooner than the end of the year.”

“You can’t simply test the waters by saying, what do you think of cannabis law reform, yes or no - we think the public deserve to have much more detail, and he’s [Little] said that as well.”

His preference was for the vote to be held alongside the 2020 general election, given the extra time that would allow for the establishment of public education programmes and deliberative democracy mechanisms, such as a citizens’ jury which Little has mooted in the past.

“You can’t simply test the waters by saying, what do you think of cannabis law reform, yes or no - we think the public deserve to have much more detail, and he’s [Little] said that as well.”

The higher levels of turnout at general elections compared to postal ballots would also provide a clearer mandate for the Government based on the result, Bell said.

While Little and other MPs have suggested political concerns could make it less desirable to hold the referendum alongside the general election, there are some logistical issues with other approaches.

Little said the Electoral Commission had provided advice that electoral law meant a central government referendum could not be run in conjunction with local body elections.

NZ Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell says the public need to be well educated on the cannabis referendum. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

“You’d have to do them as two separate exercises so we’re just considering the implications of that, to the extent that one of the options is we run that referendum ballot at the same time as the local government elections this year.

“Obviously the option of running it at the 2020 general election is still absolutely on the cards, but in terms of considering the two options that’s a fact we have to think about.”

Another potential complication in running the referendum outside of the general election could be the logistics of sending and receiving the postal ballots.

Bell said government officials had told him of doubts over whether a postal ballot could be carried out within the legally required three-week timeframe, given mail service cutbacks (New Zealand Post moved to alternate-day delivery for major towns and cities in 2015).

Little said he had not been briefed on any potential delivery issues with postal ballots, but would seek further advice from his officials.

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