Is a referendum the best way to deal with cannabis law reform?

In theory letting the people decide on whether we liberalise our drug laws in relation to cannabis via a referendum sounds like a good democratic approach, but is it actually the best way to deal with it?

One problem is that our politicians do not have experience or a good history of letting the people decide. The flag debate and referendums were a shambles, in large part due to how our politicians stuffed things around.

Benedikt Fischer (Hugh Green Foundation Chair in Addiction Research and Professor, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, at the University of Auckland) looks at the cannabis issue –  NZ’s potential cannabis policy pitfalls

In New Zealand, the prospects of fundamental liberalising reform to cannabis prohibition are heading into an acute phase. In recent months, the Government has provided incremental clarification that the issues will be decided on through a public referendum to occur on general election day in 2020. Based on recent statements by the Prime Minister, this referendum will be based on a question on possible cannabis control reform to be drafted by Cabinet.

While a referendum is a legitimate means of decision-making on public policy, and has been applied in areas of drug control elsewhere, it is an approach that comes with distinct dynamics in terms of process – regardless of where one sits on the ‘opinion fence’.

Without question, dealing with cannabis control reform through a referendum is an unusual choice in the socio-political context of New Zealand, where few policy issues have been decided by direct democracy. Rather, New Zealand routinely develops or changes law or policy, including on many no-less fundamental or controversial topics, by relying on the standard procedures of its parliamentary democracy.

What makes cannabis control so unique or different that it requires such a special approach?

Our politicians have avoided addressing dysfunctional drug laws for decades. They have been sort of forced into doing something, but may see a referendum as a way of either sabotaging the process. CGT policy was dumped without going to an election with it as promised.

Yet irrespective of these general queries, and embracing the possible benefits of direct decision-making on cannabis legalisation ‘by the people’, there are various issues or possible pitfalls to consider.

First, in order for a referendum on cannabis reform to work and produce meaningful results, it needs to occur on the basis of a concise and clear question. This question, however, requires comprehensive foundational clarity regarding what overall cannabis reform plan the Government exactly intends to propose and implement. And this involves many devils hidden in many details.

For example, a legalisation model in which cannabis use, availability, production and product, advertising, etcetera, are only loosely regulated is very different from one where these essential parameters are tightly controlled and restricted.

One of several key challenges here will be to clearly convey the difference between ‘decriminalisation’ and ‘legalisation’ reforms for cannabis. Notwithstanding many – including leading politicians – viewing and using these concepts as if interchangeable, they are fundamentally different: While the former typically softens the punitive consequences for illegal drug use or sales, and commonly relies on ‘diversion’ measures like education or treatment programs, it retains their formal illegality. In contrast, ‘legalisation’ renders use and availability truly legal in principle, and relies mainly on regulatory measures for control and restrictions.

Public referenda, especially on controversial value issues with implications for society at large, like drug control, can be tricky undertakings.

But why are they tricky? Politicians have a habit of making things seem tricky when they don’;t want to take responsibility and do anything. I hope they surprise me, but I fear that the public will end up being manipulated and let down.

A referendum gives our politicians scope for messing up the decision making and then handing the blame to voters.

Leave a comment


  1. I have to agree. A referendum is a stupid way forward as the issue is too complex to be summed up into a simple yes/no choice. Parties should put forward their comprehensive policies and let the public vote for or against as part of the general election.

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  23rd April 2019

      We’ve all smoked it in our youth, or most of us have. Decriminalise it and stop making such a hoohah about it. Legalising can be slipped in later 😀

  2. Duker

     /  23rd April 2019

    There seems to an elephant in the room if you are talking about referendums dont work for drug reform.
    US states have largely done so by referendum of voters ( mostly at election time)

    Often it was a 2 step process . eg California
    Medical use 1996 Proposition 215( 56%)
    Recreational 2016 proposition 64 (57%)

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  23rd April 2019

      Thank goodness someone else doesn’t say ‘referenda’. No Latin word ending in -um would have -a as a plural and referendum is a gerund so wouldn’t be used in the plural in Latin anyway.

  3. NOEL

     /  23rd April 2019

    Told the pol!is it there aint two questions they aint getting my vote at the next election.
    I guess he wasn’t interested as I didn’t receive a reply.

    • Duker

       /  23rd April 2019

      Maybe didnt get a reply, because like me, have no idea of what you are trying to say

      • Griff.

         /  23rd April 2019

        From past comments Noel wants decimalization not legalization.
        He wants to keep the black market and all the harm it does .

        • NOEL

           /  23rd April 2019

          Aw come on Griff its a Health Issue…yes?

          • Griff.

             /  23rd April 2019

            If you think getting locked up because you use a recreational drug far less damaging to society than the readily available legal drug alcohol is a health issue …..yes
            I dont.
            I consider the legality of cannabis or otherwise a freedom issue.
            The freedom for me to do as I wish providing I do no harm to others.

            • NOEL

               /  23rd April 2019

              But, but the Drug Foundation and the Greens have been saying it’s a health issue for sometime.
              Oh so now it’s a freedom issue?

            • Duker

               /  23rd April 2019

              Just throwing the ‘problem of addiction’ over the fence to the health sector and saying ‘deal with it’ doesnt seem to be all that popular.!

              Freedom is a lie too, as of course it will be highly regulated and some how taxed as well. As ‘sitting at home stoned is good’ but not driving, or at a lot of work places and no one under 18 is allowed to be legally stoned either . Ah Freedom

              perhaps they could recycle the Massage Parlours Act of 1978 as Marijuana Legalization act 2020 and use the regulatory legalese
              Such as –

              The Police may, before 3 weeks preceding the date of
              the expiry of the certificate, file with the Court and serve on
              the applicant a notice of their desire to object to the renewal
              of the certificate of approval, or to be heard in respect of the
              application in the same way as if it were an application for a
              certificate of approval

              This is how freedom is to regulated as of course driving while stoned testing and penalties will have to be beefed up as well.

        • Duker

           /  23rd April 2019

          You mean like when prostitution was legalized , like a magic wand ‘harm’ disappeared, all taxes were paid, street walkers and pimps were a thing of the past.

          • Griff.

             /  23rd April 2019

            The question is not the binary of did all harm disappear.
            It is was harm lessened ?
            Yes prostitutes are in a far better position now than they were when it was illegal.

            • Kitty Catkin

               /  23rd April 2019

              I believe that it was the soliciting rather than the sex between strangers that was illegal, a nit-picking point.

            • Duker

               /  23rd April 2019

              Not really . We had the Massage Parlours Act of 1978 , which ‘allowed’ brothels under the guise of massage parlours. The problem was a ‘parlour’ was defined as a public place so you still could be arrested for soliciting.-
              “dating tonight sweet heart” ?
              One of the acts provisions mean parlour employees should be dismissed if they engaged in prostitution!
              32. Court may order dismissal of masseur or masseuse-

              Perhaps Mps had seen the brothels in Europe where the women sat around and were selected by the customers and they wanted something like that but behind closed doors.

              The parlours were to be licensed and the operators were to be approved- what could go wrong ?

  4. I think this is the way to go forward.. most elected politicians have been, too scared to commit to law reform (off their own back) Even the Greens kept saying ‘It is our policy.. BUT not a Priority’ I give them kudos for bringing the ‘Reeferendum’ option to the table & to NZF & Lab. for saying they will honor the outcome, post 2020 IF still in Govt.

    Of course the downside could be, that many younger folks (likely pro-reform) are the ones who often dont bother voting ?! :/

    I see a recent poll (comm. by Christian-Right: Family First) has only 18% support for ‘legalisation’ of cannabis ?
    This is the opposite of other polls, that have it as high as about 70% in favour of some form of ‘relaxing of laws’; either ‘Decrim.’, Legalise (whatever they actually mean ?) OR ‘Regulation’ (legal with strict rules, R18+, not used in public, limit on home-grow, licensed commercial supply etc.)

    In light of the changes that have already occurred overseas.. Aotearoa/NZ really needs to ‘get with the program’ & accept that Prohibition/Zero-tolerance is ‘passed its useby date’ (20th century) & it IS time to move beyond it ! 🙂

    • The other thing I have heard, that as a Govt. referendum.. they could have more than one question OR perhaps choose from 2-3 options, then the most popular, is put up in a ‘run-off’ against ‘status quo’; like the FAILED Key-Flag one 😀

      • Griff.

         /  23rd April 2019

        The question asked.

        Click to access CURIA-MARKET-RESEARCH-MARIJUANA-POLL-2019.pdf

        View on cannabis.
        Current restrictions remain. 7%
        Lift restrictions for medical but not recreational use.65%
        Lift restrictions for recreational use.18%

        Very few will ever agree to simply lift all restrictions for recreational use .
        The question was loaded.
        The pollster DPF knows better than to ask such a loaded question.
        The survey was bullshite.

        • Duker

           /  23rd April 2019

          denying real evidence are you ? Would it make it better if a computer simulated the poll results 25 years from now using 600 runs of the model and averaging them.

          • Griff.

             /  23rd April 2019

            August 2017 – Poll shows growing support for cannabis law reform

            Total supporting legalising or decriminalising cannabis:

            For personnel possession – 65 percent
            Personal growing – 55 percent
            Growing for friends – 26 percent
            Pain relief – 78 percent
            Terminal pain relief – 81 percent
            Selling from a store – 34 percent.

            29 August 2016 – UMR poll shows overwhelming support for medicinal cannabis law change:

            “Should Parliament change the laws of New Zealand so that patients have safe legal access to affordable medicinal cannabis and cannabis products when prescribed by a licensed doctor?”

            76% YES
            12% NO
            12% UNDECIDED

            “Should Parliament change the laws of New Zealand so that natural cannabis and medicinal cannabis products are treated as herbal remedies when used therapeutically?”

            61% YES
            24% NO
            15% UNDECIDED

            15 August 2016 – NZ Drug Foundation-Curia poll finds majority backs law change:

            64 percent of respondents think possessing a small amount of cannabis for personal use should be either legal (33%) or decriminalised (31%), with a minority (34%) in favour of retaining prohibition.

            “This is the first time we’ve seen such a strong majority in favour of reforming New Zealand’s drug law. This tells us voters are ready for change even if law makers aren’t,” said Ross Bell, NZ Drug Foundation Executive Director.

            Here are the statements that were put to callers:

            “I’m going to read out a range of activities relating to cannabis. For each activity can you please tell me whether you think that activity should be legal, or illegal and subject to criminal penalties or illegal but decriminalised which means it is an offence punishable only by a fine, like a speeding ticket and there is no criminal record. So the three choices are legal, illegal or decriminalised.

            Possessing a small amount of cannabis for personal use
            Growing a small amount of cannabis for personal use
            Growing a small amount of cannabis for giving or selling to your friends
            Growing and/or using cannabis for any medical reasons such as to alleviate pain
            Growing and/or using cannabis for medical reasons if you have a terminal illness
            Selling cannabis from a store.

            Cannabis opinion poll August 2016

            12 April 2016 – TVNZ poll shows “the majority of New Zealanders are now in favour of the use of medical marijuana.”

            The latest ONE News Colmar Brunton poll asked “Do you support or oppose the use of marijuana for medical purposes?”

            Seventy-three per cent of people said they supported medical marijuana use, 21 per cent opposed it and six per cent were unsure.

            Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne says he’s not surprised by the results.

            “I think that’s about where I think public opinion is and in fact I would’ve voted ‘yes’ in the poll too,” he says.

            31st March 2016 – UMR poll in response to Helen Kelly’s unsuccessful application to use medicinal cannabis:

            UMR polled 750 people on cannabis issues:

            72% support the use of marijuana for medical purposes
            13% oppose the use of marijuana for medical purposes
            46% support the legalisation of small amounts of marijuana for personal use
            46% oppose the legalisation of small amounts of marijuana for personal use

            The UMR poll shows Kiwis want medical cannabis by more than 5:1 compared to those who oppose it. Support for cannabis “legalisation” has increased dramatically since UMR last asked the question 20 years ago. However while this latest poll shows an even split between law reformers and prohibitionists, we believe that if the contradictory poll question actually made sense, then we would see a different result showing even greater support for cannabis law reform.

            On 28 June 2014, the New Zealand Herald reported “Most people want to see cannabis either made legal or decriminalised”:

            The latest Herald-DigiPoll survey shows just under a third of those polled thought smoking cannabis should attract a fine but not a criminal conviction, while a fifth went further and said it should be legalised.

            While most National Party supporters (53.8 per cent) favoured the status quo, almost 45 per cent supported legalisation or decriminalisation.

            Labour drug and alcohol spokesman Iain Lees-Galloway said there was a growing mood for reform.

            Greens drug and alcohol spokesman Kevin Hague said the poll results reflected the fact that most people had smoked cannabis.

            “And for most New Zealanders, it is evident that the current law isn’t working. It’s causing harm rather than solving it.”

            New Zealand First favours a citizens-initiated referendum, while the Act party would opt for a conscience vote if the issue came up in Parliament.An Internet Party spokesman said while there was no official policy yet, strong feedback to the party favoured decriminalisation – a position that leader Laila Harre personally supported.

            A Campbell Live survey on 16 April 2014 found 84 percent of respondents said yes “it is time to decriminalise cannabis for personal use”.

            In July 2013 TV3’s 3rd Degree reported 98% of respondents agreed medicinal cannabis should be allowed.

            On 22 May 2013 TV3’s The Vote debated cannabis law reform and found “Viewers voted overwhelming in favour of decriminalisation, with 72 percent voting yes and just 28 percent voting no.

            TV3’s Campbell Live Mon, 26 Sep 2011, asked viewers “Should cannabis be decriminalised?” and 72% replied yes by text or email.

            A TV3/TNZ poll from November 2006 found 63 per cent of respondents support legalising marijuana for pain relief.

            A pre-election Sunday Star-Times poll on September 4th, 2005, showed 37% support for “decriminalisation” of cannabis, and 55% opposition. Among the new generation of Kiwis – voters aged under 30 – support was at 45%.

            A UMR Insight poll of 750 people aged over 18 published in The Dominion in August 2000 found sixty per cent of New Zealanders favour law reform. 41 per cent want to decriminalise cannabis, and an additional 19 per cent want cannabis legalised.

            The strongest support came from Green Party voters, with 79 per cent in favour of law reform. 67 per cent of Labour voters favour changing the law, as do 65 per cent of Alliance voters and 56 per cent of ACT voters. National voters were 54 per cent in favour of law reform.
            Support for a law change was strongest among high income earners, with 67 per cent of those on $50,000 to $70,000 a year in favour.

            A One News/Colmar Brunton poll in April 2000 also found support for decriminalising cannabis had grown since their last poll. Of those surveyed 55% approved law changes, while 40% were opposed.

            A TV3/CM Research poll in 1996 found that 88% favoured introducing instant fines for small-scale cannabis use, 65% favoured “decriminalisation” and 35% supported “legalisation”.

            • your to the point Griff… Ka Pai 🙂

              clearly the majority, do want reform.. BUT there are always way for ‘nay-sayers’ to skew their data & make it say anything, even ‘status quo’ 😦

            • Duker

               /  23rd April 2019

              These were some of the questions asked by Family First paid poll this year
              #Do you think that drivers using cannabis are more likely or less likely to
              cause accidents?
              #Do you think cannabis use can damage the brains of young people under the age of 25?
              Imagine asking pesky facts about cannabis effects ?

              And the opinion side
              #Which of the following statements comes closest to your opinion on
              Current restrictions remain 7%
              Lift restrictions for medical but not recreational use 65%
              Lift restrictions for recreational use 18%
              Unsure/Refuse 10%

              I notice they used a random selected phone numbers poll, not a self selected online panel which offers IPADs as prizes for participation.

            • @Duker

              I dont see a question: ‘Do you support BOTH Medicinal & ADULTS-only Rec-use of Cannabis, law reform ?’
              .. perhaps a little divisive.. methinks :/

            • OR to put it more bluntly.. “What a Load of B-S” 😀

            • Duker

               /  23rd April 2019

              Finally I get your point about 2 questions. What part of recreational use means medicinal use as well don’t you get!
              Dream on if you think we will get a referedum that goes beyond – medicinal use , yes or no..
              Sometimes what will be will be and no standing in the way

  1. Is a referendum the best way to deal with cannabis law reform? — Your NZ – NZ Conservative Coalition

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s