Yes or No: New Zealanders Head to the Polls to Legalize Cannabis

Today, New Zealand gains the opportunity to become the first country in the world to legalize cannabis via a national public vote.

Landing a spot on this year’s ballot is the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, which would provide a regulatory framework around the production, sale, purchase and consumption of adult-use cannabis in New Zealand.

What’s at Stake in the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill

The proposed  Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill would allow adults at least 20 years of age to:

• Buy up to 14 grams of dried cannabis (or its equivalent) per day from licensed outlets.

• Enter licensed premises where cannabis is sold or consumed.

• Grow up to two plants, with a maximum of four plants per household.

• Share up to 14 grams of dried cannabis (or its equivalent) with another person aged 20 or over.

One of the key highlights from the bill allows for cannabis consumption premises, providing a much-needed safe place for people to consume. The proposed lounges could operate as either a BYO or a combined cannabis retail/consumption premise with the option of selling food and beverages.

As the bill is mainly focused around health and harm reduction, a new regulatory body, the Cannabis Regulatory Authority, would be established to “promote the well-being of New Zealanders, reducing cannabis-related harm and to reduce the overall use of cannabis over time.”

But it’s a close call on whether Kiwis will tick the “green box.” New Zealand’s largest medicinal cannabis company, Helius Therapeutics, commissioned Horizon Research to conduct a tracking survey that polled citizens in an effort to gauge how many would support the proposed bill. On August 31, responses were an event split, with 49.5% of participants saying they would support the bill, and 49.5% saying they would oppose it.

New Zealand already ranks in the top 10 of countries with the highest cannabis consumption per capita in the world. So why the apparent voter apathy?

There are a couple of possible reasons: First, the referendum is running alongside a general election that’s heavily focused on COVID-19, as well as a vote on euthanasia. Second, New Zealand passed the Medical Cannabis Scheme on April 1 this year, which has resulted in some confusion — and there is only one approved drug that doctors can prescribe.

This isn’t the country’s first grapple with the issue of cannabis legalization. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark, whose coalition government vetoed cannabis reform nearly 20 years ago, has been a vocal advocate for voting “yes” in the non-binding referendum. Clark, who led the country between 1999 and 2008, is also the chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

“We’ve got the opportunity to clean this up, get the law right, stop unnecessarily wasting hundreds of millions of dollars a year on the whole prosecution and court and apprehension process, and prison sentences as well — and also get a decent tax take and some legal jobs off it,” said Clark in a local television interview.

Industry Leaders Weigh In

Leading up to the referendum, a few key players in the industry shared their stance on the referendum, as well as thoughts on New Zealand’s future as a green country.

Unlike other medicinal cannabis companies, Rua Bioscience is very open with their positive view of a ‘yes’ outcome. The medicinal cannabis company is located on New Zealand’s East Coast, an area with a high Māori population. In a story similar to the U.S. and its prosecution of minorities in the War on Drugs, there is a disproportionate criminalization of Māori arrested for, and convicted of, cannabis-related offenses.

“[The Board] see the ethics of it — particularly, both in terms of the opportunities for the community that founded our company, and outside of medical, a lot of growers here are hanging out for legal cultivation,” said Manu Caddie, co-founder of Rua Bioscience.

With their brand story focused around community and connection to the land, Caddie believes “if there’s any company in the country that should be able to build a brand around recreational cannabis, it’s Ruatoria [and the] East Coast.”

Paul Manning of Helius Therapeutics, however, takes a slightly different stance, advocating that  New Zealanders, not cannabis companies, need to make up their own minds on the referendum.

“This is a vote for New Zealanders,” he said. “Individuals need to make up their own minds. It doesn’t matter what we think.”

While Helius can see an economic opportunity within a recreational market, it’s not part of their mission.

“We won’t produce recreation products through Helius just because we’ve got that very clear purpose — unlocking the therapeutic potential cannabis to improve quality of life,” Manning said. “Many people would argue that recreational is medicinal use and can improve your quality of life. For us, it’s not part of our mission.”

New Zealand’s first organically certified cannabis cultivator, Puro, has yet to make their opinion public. However, Tim Aldridge, Puro’s managing director, is glad the country is having a conversation.

“It allows for more understanding around the benefits of cannabis,” Aldridge said. “Within the group, everyone has their opinion on which way they’ll vote. We have had some fantastic debates and conversations.”

Regardless of how the country votes, Aldridge reaffirmed that Puro’s business model won’t change. “We’ll still be growing pharmaceutical-grade, premium organic cannabis for medical and therapeutic uses,” he said.

On New Zealand’s Cannabis Future

New Zealand’s reputation for producing high-quality produce makes Caddie optimistic about the country’s future as a global player.

“We can produce the world’s highest quality cannabis, and the trusted reputation New Zealand has across other sectors positions us well for being trusted in this area,” Caddie said.

“If we are able to develop premium products that have specific genetic profiles, or particular formulations, New Zealand could become an R&D hub and an incubator for innovation, rather than production, like Israel,” he said.

Increased Awareness to Cannabis Health Benefits

An increase in people’s understanding of cannabis benefits is one of the things Puro’s Aldridge is most excited about.

“Cannabis [is] becoming better understood and accepted for the positive benefits is something that does excite me,” said Aldridge. “I’m also looking forward to increased access and affordability of safe and therapeutic products. We see that as happening now, and it’s going to happen regardless of the referendum.”

Economic Opportunity

Abe Gray,  founder of the Whakamana Cannabis Museum, is an American expat who has been a pro-cannabis activist and educator in New Zealand for over two decades.

Gray sees the potential economic benefits of a legal rec market for New Zealand, looking to legal markets in North America as an example.

“Half the success story of cannabis around the world is the economic side of things. In places like Colorado and California, the one sort of common theme is consistent economic development, and bucking the recessionary trend in the U.S. overall,” Gray said.  “To me, it looks like it’s been a net positive in those places, and the unfortunate thing for New Zealand is that we’re twenty years behind.”

According to Gray, the international economic trends revolving around cannabis are fixed, and there’s nothing that can be done to influence that.  

“Cannabis is going to be a major growth industry, whether New Zealanders like it or not,” he added.

Paul Manning of Helius Therapeutics thinks that the story told on economic impact is not as clear as the harm reduction message.

“The bill is not presented as, ‘Here’s a great economic opportunity, let’s regulate and tax cannabis,’ Manning explained. “It’s been presented as ‘let’s improve health outcomes,’ and ‘we’re not trying to increase cannabis consumption; we’re trying to decrease it and put better controls around it.’”

With more than 80% of New Zealanders agreeing that prohibition has failed, Manning shares the sentiment that something different needs to be done when it comes to cannabis, and the Cannabis Legalisation and Control bill is a big step forward. “I’m really excited about the opportunity we have,” he said.

Don’t Repeat History

When Gray first immigrated to New Zealand, the country looked set to become the first country in the world to federally legalize cannabis.

Gray, who was heavily involved in activism for the legalize cannabis conversation back in 2002, thinks that New Zealand is now 20 years behind where it could have been, and the country can’t afford to make the same mistake twice.

“If we had kind of legalized then, and gradually built up to where some of the other places in the world are today, we could’ve been a leader of what is recognized as a global billion-dollar growth industry,” he said.

TELL US, do you think New Zealand will vote to legalize?

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