By: Lucy Bennett

The National Party has released what it says are the four options for a referendum on the decriminalisation of cannabis contained in a paper to be discussed by Cabinet tomorrow.

National has been leaked the entire Cabinet paper ahead of the discussion by Cabinet Ministers.

According to National, the four options for the proposed 2020 referendum are:

• A general question consistent with the undertaking in the Confidence and Supply agreement: “Do you support legalising the personal use of recreational cannabis?” This would not be accompanied by any legal framework or other policy decisions and it would be left to a subsequent Parliament to determine what to do in the event of a “yes” vote.

• A questions referring to a specific policy framework document setting out the basic principles of what legalisation for personal use of recreational cannabis in New Zealand would entail: “Do you support legalising recreational cannabis in accordance with [published policy document]?” A “yes” vote would result in the duly elected government and Parliament having some moral imperative, but no obligation, to enact law changes consistent with that policy document;

• A question referring to draft legislation that outlines the regulatory model for cannabis: ‘Do you support legalising the personal use of recreational cannabis in accordance with [published draft legislation]?” Similar to option 2, a “yes” vote would result in the duly elected government and Parliament having some moral imperative, but no obligation, to enact the legislation.

• A question referring to legislation already enacted but conditional on an affirmative vote on the referendum: “Do you support legalising recreational cannabis in accordance with the [Drug Reform] Act 20XX?” A “yes” vote would trigger the legislation coming into effect.

A National Party spokeswoman said the party would not release the whole Cabinet paper and would not divulge its source.

The party’s drug reform spokeswoman Paula Bennett said there were huge gaps in the options.

“The Cabinet Paper is clear that smoking marijuana when you’re under the age of 25 is detrimental for development of the brain, and yet it recommends that the legal age should be 20. The legal age seems to have been plucked out of thin air.

“The paper acknowledges that regular marijuana use increases the risk of developing depression, psychosis and schizophrenia and is especially harmful to those under 25 years old. It also acknowledges that there is a one in six chance of young people becoming dependent. This would result in further demand for mental health services.

“There is no mention about what level of tax will be imposed on marijuana, will it be the same as tobacco and alcohol? Will it really get rid of the illicit market if it’s taxed at 40 or 50 per cent? Will a much higher tax rate be needed if they will test 10 per cent of the product to ensure THC levels are low?

“The Government hasn’t identified any budget for ensuring the public knows about the pros and cons of legalisation in the lead up to the referendum. Given how much this would impact our communities, New Zealanders need to know what they are voting for.

She claimed the Coalition Government had been unable to reach a consensus and the decision around which option they would choose had been holding up the process.

Inquiries to the office of Justice Minister Andrew Little, who is taking the paper to Cabinet, were directed to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office, which declined to comment.

Bennett told the Herald National would be pushing hard for option four.

“We believe that legislation has got time and should go through the House because of the robustness of that against public submissions. It lets select committee really get into the detail of that proposed legislation and for that to be public and everybody to get that level of scrutiny.

“From my reading of the Cabinet paper they are highly unlikely to go with option one but I believe it’s option one that New Zealand First are pushing.

“The way the Cabinet paper is written, you can kind of tell that Andrew Little probably leans to option four, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they land on option three.”

Bennett’s view tallies with the Herald’s understanding that the preferred proposal includes a draft bill with details of a proposed regulatory regime for a legal market. The bill would have a first reading only if there was majority support to legalise in the 2020 referendum.

But the Herald also understands the preferred option has been approved by the Green Party and the New Zealand First caucuses.

It will include some regulatory details including a legal age limit for purchase – likely to be at least 18 – strict limits on marketing and availability, a ban on consuming in public places, and allowing a “common sense” amount of cannabis to be homegrown.

The Herald understands there are plans for a public consultation process, and the proposed bill will aim to reduce drug-related harm, protect young people, and cripple the livelihood of gangs that benefit from the current prohibition model.

The referendum to legalise cannabis for personal use is part of the Labour-Greens confidence and supply agreement.

It normally takes about a year for a bill to pass through all its legislative stages, meaning a regime would not come into effect until towards the end of 2021 in the event of a ‘yes’ vote.

A poll in January showed that 60 per cent of New Zealanders would vote to legalise cannabis for personal use in a referendum, 24 per cent would vote ‘no’, and 16 per cent had no opinion.

Almost two in three people surveyed supported a regulated market with licensed operators, while 39 per cent thought that a legal purchase age of 18 would be best.

Source: NZ Herald


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