Voters in New Zealand will vote on Saturday on a nationwide referendum that would legalize the use and possession of cannabis by those 20 years of age and older. If passed, the vote would make New Zealand only the third country worldwide to legalize cannabis at the national level, joining Uruguay and Canada.
The referendum, known as the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, would require the New Zealand Parliament to establish rules and regulations for the commercial production and sale of cannabis and cannabis-infused products. The measure would also permit adults at least 20 years old to purchase up to 14 grams of herbal cannabis per day. Home cultivation of up to four cannabis plants per household would also be allowed under the ballot measure. Under current New Zealand law, the use of marijuana by adults is a crime punishable by up to three months in jail.
Last week, a group of New Zealand’s leading public health professionals expressed their support for the legalization referendum in an editorial published in the New Zealand Medical Journal. Professor Michael Baker of the University of Otago, one of the health experts who helped guide New Zealand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, said that the country is a world leader in using “innovative and evidence-informed approaches” to addressing complicated public health issues.
“It’s time to take the same fresh approach to cannabis law and put public health first,” Baker said.
“Our prohibition model for cannabis is outdated and doesn’t work,” Baker added. “Supporting law reform is about reframing cannabis use as a health issue which opens up new, more effective ways of minimizing harms caused by this drug.”
Polling Reveals A Tight Race
Public opinion polling on the referendum has revealed a tight race, with one survey released last month showing that 49.5% of respondents were in favor of legalization and 49.5% were against, while 1% gave no opinion.
Paul Manning, chief executive of Helius Therapeutics, a biotechnology company that has commissioned polling on the legalization of recreational cannabis in New Zealand for two years, suggested that the race is too close to call.
“The ‘yes’ vote has firmed up slightly, but it’s still looking very close, with public opinion set to keep shifting right up until voting closes,” Manning said.
“The quality of debate and the strength of arguments for or against legalisation in the next two weeks are now critical,” Manning added. “Turn-out of 18- to 34-year-olds will also be key. Young adults are the strongest supporters of the bill, but they also have the lowest registration and intention to vote.”
Andrew Geddis, a public law professor at the University of Otago, said that cannabis legalization has never enjoyed overwhelming support in New Zealand.
“Those wanting to see a yes vote had to convince a reasonable number of people that their previous prohibitionist views were mistaken,” he said. “At the moment, it doesn’t look like they have been able to do so and time really is running out.”
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark of the Labour Party, who now serves as the chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, launched a publicity campaign calling on voters to support the legalization referendum.
“I think there’s everything to play for with this one,” said Clark. “If you averaged out all the polls, it’s a tough race but it’s doable.”
Early voting for the October 17 election has already begun. The vote was originally scheduled for September 19, but was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.