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New Zealand Cannabis Referendum 2020

illustration of voting in Australia

By Dr. Meg Spriggs and Professor David Nutt 

On October 17th 2020, New Zealanders will be given the opportunity to change the way recreational cannabis use is viewed and treated. At present, recreational cannabis use¹ is illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 (either class B or C depending on its form). Despite this, New Zealand is one of the highest using countries of recreational cannabis globally. Approximately 80% of New Zealanders have tried cannabis at least once by the age of 25 (Boden et al., 2006), and it is the fourth most widely used substance, only surpassed by the legal substances caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco (Ministry of Health, 2012). In recent years there has been some relaxation in the policing of cannabis use leading to a corresponding drop in the number of individuals charged with cannabis offences (Ministry of Justice statistics). However this does not reflect such a decline in use, and reliance on police discretion has left Māori and other socio-economically marginalised groups disproportionately affected by uneven policing (Department of Corrections, 2007).

Alongside this year’s general election, New Zealanders will vote in a nationwide referendum on whether recreational cannabis should be legalised under the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill. This will shift recreational cannabis use out of the remit of the law, and into a social and welfare framework (Fischer et al., 2020). While New Zealand has been described as an open-minded and socio-liberal society which is supportive of individual choice², the polls are currently sitting on a 50/50 split, with less than a month to go.

The Right Honourable Helen Clark (Former Prime Minister of New Zealand), urges Kiwi Expats and nationals to vote YES in the upcoming referendum.

The New Zealand Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill

The full Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill can be found here. The main elements of this bill are as follows: 

  1. Individuals aged 20 years and older will be able to enter a licenced retail premises and purchase up to 14 g of dried cannabis (or equivalent³) per day. Online retail is prohibited.

  2. Individuals aged 20 years and older will be able to grow up to two cannabis plants at home, with a maximum of four plants per household.

  3. Cannabis consumption can only occur within licenced consumption premises or private premises.

  4. No single company can obtain a licence to both produce and sell cannabis and no company will be able to produce more than 20% of the market. More weight will be given to production applications that will benefit communities negatively affected by prohibition.

  5. The types of products available will be heavily restricted. For example, anything appealing to children (e.g., gummies or lollypops) will not be permitted.

  6. Initial potency limits are proposed at 15% THC for flowers and 5 mg of THC per pack for edibles. However, this will adapt to new evidence. A progressive excise tax will be imposed based on weight and potency.

  7. No advertising will be allowed, and health warnings will be required.

Steve Rolles clarifies the nuances of this proposed legislation.

The Debate

The “vote yes” campaign has been spearheaded by the New Zealand Drug Foundation, who, much like Drug Science, campaign for a healthy approach to drugs. They have highlighted several potential benefits of the bill:

  1. Increased access to medicinal cannabis. While legal, there are few medicinal cannabis products available and it is prohibitively expensive, leading to patients relying on illicit sources. The bill will increase access to cannabis without the health and legal risks associated with purchasing from the black market.

  2. The Drug Foundation has estimated that the tax revenue from the sale of cannabis will be as much as $490M annually. This money will be put into education and harm-reduction, thus protecting and educating our young people.

  3. Police time and resources will be better spent, and thousands fewer New Zealanders will suffer the consequences of a criminal record.

  4. The Cannabis Regulation Authority will have control over potency, making the cannabis that is consumed safer. These decisions will be adapted based on incoming information and through consultation with stakeholders including Māori and young people.

  5. Overarchingly, cannabis use will be treated as a social and welfare issue, rather than a criminal issue. An effort will be put into minimising the risks associated with cannabis use and educating young people on drug safety.

Ross Bell (Executive Director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation) recently spoke to Drug Science about the importance of voting YES in this upcoming referendum.

However, the “Say Nope to Dope” campaign has fought back with the following arguments:

  1. Cannabis has become increasingly more potent. It is addictive, harmful, leads to mental health-related issues and violent domestic abuse.

  2. “Big Marijuana”, much like “Big Tobacco” will lie about the harms and will dominate the market.

  3. Edibles will be appealing to children – “The children need hope not dope”.

  4. Cannabis cultivation is not environmentally friendly.

  5. There will be negative impacts on the workplace and an increase in drug-driving.

  6. Prohibition works.

  7. “It’s not a war on drugs, it’s a defence on our brains”.

  8. That this is a gateway to the legalisation of all drugs.

While the say No lobby do cite some literature for their claims, it is limited, and many of these are clearly false. For example, cannabis cultivation is highly ecologically sound, edibles appealing to children (e.g., gummies) are banned under the planned legislation, where cannabis is legal there is a net drop in road traffic accidents because people switch from alcohol. They also ignore the fact that in countries like the UK and New Zealand, the “iron law of prohibition” has encouraged the growth of more potent versions of cannabis, with both suppliers and users unwilling to use low-potency substances. Let us not forget that the development of synthetic cannabinoids to get around the law has led to numerous deaths in New Zealand (Ministry of Health, 2017). There is virtually no evidence for death from acute cannabis overdose.

Professor David Nutt explains the inaccuracies of the ‘Say Nope To Dope’ campaign

Register to vote

Calling all Kiwis across the globe! It’s not too late to enrol to vote, and this year more than ever, it’s important to have your say. We have the real opportunity to change the future of drug policy in Aotearoa, but it is going to be close so every vote counts. If you are a New Zealand citizen who has visited within the last 3 years, OR a permanent resident who has visited within the last 12 months, you are eligible to vote. Overseas voting opened on the 30th September.

Click here, to watch the full ‘New Zealand Cannabis 2020 discussion.


Ministry of Health, National Drug Policy 2007–2012. Ministerial Committee on Drug Policy, (2012). Pg.30

¹ As of April 2020, the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme certifies the use of medicinal cannabis in New Zealand. ²Exemplified by the legalisation of commercial sex, same-sex-marriage and, possibly soon, medically-assisted dying as regulated by the state (Fisher et al., 2020). It was also the first self-governing country in the world to give women the vote in 1893. ³According to the bill, this equates to 70 g fresh, 14 seeds, 210 g of edibles, 3.5 g concentrates, 980 g of liquids.

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