Cannabis law reform explainer: Preliminary results are out tomorrow – what happens next?


Even if there is a majority “yes” vote in the cannabis referendum, it would be about 18 months before people could legally puff a joint at home or in a specialised cafe.

The preliminary results of the cannabis referendum will be released tomorrow at 2pm.

It will be one of the final steps in a process that started three years ago when the Labour-Greens confidence and supply agreement included a promise for a referendum on legalising cannabis for personal use.

That led to drafting of the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, which is yet to be introduced to Parliament but details the framework for a legal market.

But tomorrow is not the final count. That won’t be revealed until November 6, and will include the 480,000-odd special votes.

If tomorrow’s preliminary count is close, the final verdict may well hinge on how the special votes fall.

What happens if there is a ‘yes’ vote?

With a parliamentary majority, Labour does not need support from any other party to push the bill into law.

The bill would be introduced and, following its first reading, be sent to select committee where MPs would hear from the public and from experts.

Labour has said the existing controls in the bill would remain as the bare minimum.

Following any strengthening of controls after the committee stage, the bill would pass its second and third reading and then become law.

How would it work?

Under the current bill, those aged 20 and over could carry or buy up to 14g of cannabis (about 30 joints) a day, but they couldn’t legally consume it anywhere except a private premises or a special cannabis cafe.

They could grow two plants at home, or up to four plants in a home with at least two 20+year-olds.

They couldn’t buy online, and a ban on advertising would make it illegal to put a huge cannabis leaf on a shopfront or on a billboard by the motorway.

There are no specific provisions in the bill to protect heavy users, but general ones include a 15 per cent limit on THC (the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) content, price controls, health information at the point of sale and host responsibility at cannabis cafes.

It would be against the law to supply or sell it to a person under 20, or expose an underage person to cannabis smoke or vape.

There would be a cap on national supply, and controls to ensure the deprived communities can take part in the market.

A sales levy would be ring-fenced to boost health services. This pot has been estimated to be worth up to $675 million a year – though the value of the levy is yet to be determined.

When would it come into force?

It generally takes about a year for a bill to be introduced and pass three readings in Parliament before becoming a law.

Afterwards the Cannabis Regulatory Authority, which would oversee how the law is put into practice, and an expert panel to advise the authority would both need to be established.

This means it would likely be 18 months before people could expect to be able to use cannabis under the new legal framework.

In the meantime, the Government and police would discuss whether to take a more lenient approach to criminalising cannabis users.

What happens if there is a ‘no’ vote?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said that some of the issues that legalisation sought to address – including referring cannabis users to health services rather than the justice system – will be looked at regardless of the result.

A change to the Misuse of Drugs Act last year sought to take a more health-centred approach for those caught in possession of any drug, not just cannabis.

It has seen fewer prosecutions and greater use of police warnings since it was implemented in August last year.

But it also codified police discretion into law, and a Herald investigation found that the change has done nothing to alleviate the inequitable application of the law, which disproportionately hurts Māori.

In the 10 and a half months since the law change, about 10.7 per cent of drug users coming into contact with police were referred to health services – a rate described by the Drug Foundation as a complete failure.

On the campaign trail earlier this month, Ardern noted the 500-odd health referrals that had been made so far under the new law.

“Regardless of the outcome of the vote, we will look at the way the Misuse of Drugs Act amendments are being applied, making sure we’ve got the addiction and treatment facilities we need, making sure those referrals are happening in the cases where they should,” Ardern said at the time.

She also said the Government would keep a close eye on the legal medicinal cannabis regime to see if the product standards were too high, making medicines inaccessible for too many patients.

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