Justice

Government unveils draft law for cannabis legalisation

The Government has released the draft legislation that would govern the growth, sale and use of recreational cannabis should New Zealand vote ‘yes’ in next year’s referendum, Laura Walters reports

The Government has released the draft cannabis legislation ahead of next year's referendum, with an emphasis on harm reduction, education, and with a view to implementing a strict but pragmatic regime.

The bill means New Zealand would fall somewhere between the more state-controlled, anti-profit regime in Uruguay, and the recently enacted Canadian model, which does allow for private companies to grow, distribute and sell cannabis and cannabis products.

The draft bill, which was released on Tuesday, does everything Justice Minister Andrew Little previously signalled, including restricting possession and use to those 20 years and over, and putting strict controls around a licensing regime for both manufacture and sale, while also restricting advertising and taking a harm reduction approach.

“The primary objective of the legislation is to reduce overall cannabis use and limit the ability of young people to access cannabis,” Little said.

Some of the things yet to be worked through are workplace drug testing regulations and drug driving regulations and testing.

Some parts of the regime would not be decided solely by the Government through the legislation. Instead a regulatory body, along with an advisory committee and an appeals body, would make decisions on things like what cannabis products (such as different sorts of edibles) could be legally sold, and who could gain a licence to manufacture and sell.

The amount each person could purchase would be limited to 14 grams per day – which is the weekly consumption of a regular user.

Those who wanted to grow their own plants for personal use would be restricted to two plants per person, or four plants per household.

Along with the restrictions of age and amount, other key components include: a ban on all marketing and advertising of cannabis products; harm minimisation messaging in the retailing of cannabis; limiting consumption to private homes and specifically licenced premises; limiting sale of cannabis to specifically licenced physical stores (not online or remote sales); strict controls and regulations on the potency of cannabis; a state licensing regime, meaning all stages of the growing and supply chain are licenced and controlled by the Government; and limits to the amount of cannabis that is allowed to be grown.

The referendum is a promise from the Green Party-Labour confidence and supply agreement, and both Little and Greens co-leader James Shaw said this was a delivery on that commitment.

Little said the plan was to put forward the strictest bill possible, in order to restrict access to young people, control potency, and focus on harm reduction and education.

“New Zealanders are caring and responsible and can see that prohibition has pushed drug problems underground. If we get this right, our communities will be better off."

The types of products and the aesthetic of retailers could not be those that appealed to young people, or drew them in.

Little said they had learnt lessons from the mistakes of big tobacco and big alcohol when it came to monopolising or dominating a market, and creating big commercial enterprises that had the ability to do more harm.

The Government, along with iwi, had talked about the importance of restricting market size in order not to repeat these mistakes.

That meant there would be limits to the amount a licence holder could grow, and there would be mandatory separation between wholesalers and manufacturers, and retailers.

While the Government said it did not have estimates on the amount of tax it expected to raise, the model would be a progressive excise tax according to potency levels – this was similar to the alcohol regime in New Zealand. However, a study by the New Zealand Drug Foundation estimated it would return up to $250m a year in tax.

Meanwhile, a levy would be ring-fenced and directly fund harm reduction work and education programmes. The administration and monitoring costs would be covered by licensing fees.

NZ Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said this draft legislation ticked all the boxes. It was thorough, it focused on harm reduction and it gave New Zealanders some clarity.

Going into next year’s referendum it was important Kiwis knew what they were voting for, in their ‘yes’/’no’ question, he said.

The finalised question will be:

Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?

There is a strong focus on controlling market size, so as to stop companies dominating or monopolising a market, as big tobacco and big alcohol had done in the past. Photo: Getty Images

Green Party drug reform spokesperson Chloe Swarbrick said the draft law provided the information needed for Kiwis to have a constructive and informed debate ahead of the referendum.

“Politicians have sat on their hands with this decision for far too long. With this referendum on a strong regulatory framework, the control of cannabis rests in the hands of Kiwis: do we want a dodgy black market, or do we want control?

“New Zealanders are caring and responsible and can see that prohibition has pushed drug problems underground. If we get this right, our communities will be better off,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Helen Clark Foundation – an independent policy thinktank – reiterated its support for a ‘yes’ vote, saying: “Cannabis should be treated as a health and social issue, not a criminal one. The status quo is exacerbating its harm.”

In August, the foundation released a report making a case for the legalisation of recreational cannabis, and suggesting the Government look to markets like Uruguay and Canada in order to develop a balanced regulatory framework.

On Tuesday, the Government also announced the questions for the referendum on euthanasia, which will be held at the same time as the cannabis referendum and the general election.

The question, which also required a 'yes' or 'no' answer will be:

Do you support the End of Life Choice Act 2017 coming into force?

The End of Life Choice Bill passed its third reading last month, and would come into effect off the back of a ‘yes’ vote.

Tuesday also marked the passing of the Referendums Framework Bill, which enables these two referendums to be held alongside next year’s general election.

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