Is the last referendum going to be definitive for the foreseeable future or should a government enact policy to decriminalise or legalise marijuana?
The recent referendum at the 2020 elections showed that public opinion for legalising marijuana
was split down the middle and while the referendum did not pass, there are ongoing discussions on what is the next step over the coming years.
Since the referendum, we have seen dozens of health organisations and social services come out and call for drug laws to be overhauled and that is providing healthy debate and discussions, which I believe was needed in the build up to these decisions. The more discussion we have around the matter, the sooner judgements can be made about when we go back to the public for a decision on the matter. In the meantime our Government is focused on minimising drug harm and treating drug use as a health issue and since taking office we have passed the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill to affirm existing discretion when deciding whether to prosecute or not prosecute for the possession and use of all drugs.
In 2018 we also passed the Medicinal Cannabis Legislation to help ease suffering for people nearing the end of their lives. Our Government created a statutory defence for people eligible to receive palliation so that they can use illicit cannabis without the fear of prosecution. It was a
compassionate and caring legislation which is making a real difference to people living in pain and nearing the end of their lives.
After the report of the Government inquiry into mental health and addiction, our Government also invested $14 million over four years in expanding the range of support available to 5,000 people each year with mild to moderate alcohol and other drug addictions issues including counselling and group therapy. We’ve also invested $44 million over four years in lifting the quality of residential care, detoxification and aftercare support for over 2,000 people who use specialist alcohol and other drug services each year, and ensure these services are sustainable. As part of minimising harm our Government also introduced the Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Bill (No. 2) to allow drug and substance checking services to operate legally in New Zealand, so people at events like music festivals can make better informed decisions and opened a new Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court in Hamilton to break the cycle of offending by addressing the underlying causes of it.
It is important we keep discussions open for all and have more robust debate on these topics as we look towards the next step.
Referendums are rarely held in our political system. Historically, once a referendum is held there is little chance that the same topic would be considered in the following decade. For example, when the first review of MMP occurred it was some number of years later until another review of that system went to the public.
So, I would see little chance that there is a Government initiated referendum on the issue until the 2030’s. However, a citizen’s initiated referendum can occur if a certain percentage of voters sign a petition seeking such a referendum. This is possible, but typically it is very difficult to achieve the number of voters required. They often take a considerable time and effort to arrange as well.
The other option, other than referendum, would be if the Government determined it would be legislation it wanted to pursue in its ordinary legislative programme. The Prime Minister has stated in the past her preference for the legalisation and she could determine that the Government would legislate such a change. The Prime Minister hasn’t taken this option up and so indicates she has no intention of doing so. Presumably for the potential voter backlash of an unpopular policy and also that she would be going against the will of the majority of the population as shown in last year’s referendum.
So if we had a principled Government that actually put forward issues they believed in, then it could be quite conceivable that they could make the law change. The Government has a simple majority and so could whip it’s members into supporting the legislation. Perhaps they fear some members of their caucus would cross the floor and vote against the Bill and that may be why they aren’t promoting it as legislation.
The other option could be a Members Bill proposed by the Green Party. This would require the Bill to be drawn from the ballot and then a majority of Parliament to vote for it. Thus, is a conceivable outcome.
Overall, it’s likely there will be neither a referendum nor a Government Bill supporting the issue. The most likely option would be an independent Members Bill and that would require a majority of the House to vote for its passage.