Things are looking up for cannabis users in New Zealand as the country's recently elected prime minister has openly stated that she wants to initiate a national discussion surrounding the legalization of cannabis. Jacinda Ardern, who became the 40th prime minister in October 2017, has declared her intentions to work in conjunction with her Cabinet to take advice on the subject before making a final decision on a date for a referendum. 

As the leader of the New Zealand Labour Party, she is currently governing the nation as part of a Coalition government with the NZ First Party and supported by the Green Party of New Zealand. Although the proposed changes to legislation regarding cannabis use are driven by a Green Party manifesto stating the drug should be legalized for personal use, including its cultivation and possession, during her election campaign, Ardern was very frank about her opinion that people should not be imprisoned for using cannabis. However, she also expressed her concerns about young people having access to a potentially harmful product. As part of the Green Party manifesto, an age limit was proposed to be introduced for personal use, and proposals for the removal of penalties for people who were growing their own marijuana for medicinal use.

Ross Bell, the New Zealand Drug Foundation's Executive Director agrees with the Prime Minister that a new look at the nation's drug policy is long overdue. In polls carried out by his organization, he has seen that 65% of respondents are keen to change the law as it currently stands, which is more than four decades old.

However, while he is in favour of the Green Party's interest in opening discussions into the subject, he also cautioned that it was necessary to acknowledge that cannabis can have a harmful effect on society, and that a wholesale move to a free-market arena, in his opinion, would be a negative step.

The Canadian government has taken steps to legalize the use of cannabis in their country by 1st July 2018, however at the present time they are still struggling to satisfy their legal obligations internationally. Canada has already legalized the use of medicinal cannabis, but strict guidelines are being put in place, with cannabis oil, fresh and dried flower being initially available with edibles set to follow. Canada has also stated that they will be putting clear guidelines into practice regarding the marketing of marijuana products, although as yet there have been no final decisions about whether plain and child-proof packaging will be used and whether endorsements will be banned. Whatever the final decision on that matter, there will be strong prohibitions on marketing which could prove to be appealing to young people, and there will be no selling through vending machines or self-service display cases permitted. There will also be limits set for those who want to cultivate their own cannabis plants, with a maximum of 4 plants per household implemented, and only 30g of dried cannabis solely for personal use will be permitted to be carried. Anyone found selling or giving cannabis to a minor or who drives under the influence of the drug will face a stiff penalty.

Although the timing of any referendum has not been determined, it has been suggested that the vote will take place before 2020 if at all possible. The changes that the public will be voting on include:

  • Legalization of cannabis for personal use, including its cultivation and possession – at the present time, it is still unclear whether or not the selling of cannabis would be made legal.
  • Age restrictions on the use of cannabis, with a legal age limit being introduced for personal cannabis usage. That age, however, has not yet been agreed on or set.
  • Driving after using cannabis – the existing law about driving under the influence of marijuana would be replaced, and a new law which is based on the correlation of cannabinoid levels and impairment would be introduced

Should Kiwis vote yes on the legalization of cannabis, the following changes would be put in place.

 

·         Medical cannabis would be legalized, with penalties being removed for anybody suffering from a debilitating, chronic or terminal condition who possesses, grows or uses marijuana products for a therapeutic purpose, so long as they are supported by their medical practitioner.

·         Licensed medicinal cannabis products will become more accessible, with the process through which medicinal cannabis products are licensed being accelerated and the barriers being lowered for manufacturers to submit their new cannabis-based products to Pharmac for funding so evidence can be gathered rapidly and then more speedily distributed when approved.

 

However, before taking any decisions with regard to a referendum date, the New Zealand government want to assess the evidence provided from overseas jurisdictions which have already legalized the sale of cannabis in order to determine the right model for their own country.

 

The policy would remove penalties for medicinal use while broader changes in legislation for cannabis use were still in the pipeline, however there would be other steps taken under the terms of the policy to help avoid the problems associated with drug use, including free counselling to be introduced for people under the age of 25, greater access to mental health support and services across the entire community, welfare system overhauls and increased access to drug and alcohol services for all.

Although no final decisions have been made yet about a referendum date or the final details of the policies being voted on, it seems clear that there has been a shift in both public and political opinion around the use of cannabis, and certainly for medicinal purposes, which will serve to benefit existing users before the end of the decade.

This also creates an amazing opportunity for people wanting to invest in New Zealand who want to be a part of what will become a boom industry. If New Zealand gets to the front of the queue, this will be a major economic boom for New Zealand.