‘Tide is turning’: New Zealand’s cannabis referendum sparks debate in Australia

In addition to deciding the fate of their political representatives on Saturday, New Zealanders also cast their votes on the burning issue of cannabis legalisation.

While the results of that referendum won’t be known until October 30, it has already sparked conversation across the ditch, with both pro- and anti-cannabis law reform campaigners in Australia watching closely.

New Zealand’s cannabis referendum has been on the cards since 2017, when Jacinda Ardern won the support of the country’s Green Party by agreeing to put cannabis law reform to a national poll.

In the months leading up to the poll, former NZ prime ministers came out to bat for both the Yes and No sides.

Labour’s Helen Clark has been a staunch pro-cannabis campaigner.

The former PM described the legalisation of cannabis as a “no-brainer”.

“Stop wasting our taxpayers’ money with police helicopters hovering over the Kiwi bush, hounding ordinary citizens who are having a joint of cannabis rather than a glass of wine,” Ms Clark said in July.

On the other side of the aisle, ex-National Party Prime Minister John Key passionately defended the ‘no’ position, saying on NZ radio: “If you want to see more drugs in New Zealand society, vote yes. But if you don’t, vote no.”

The referendum was watched closely by progressive politicians and campaigners in Australia.

Leader of the Australian Greens and federal MP for Melbourne Adam Bandt said the the era of cannabis criminalisation was coming to an end.

poster in favour of a 'yes' vote in the upcoming referendum in the legalisation of recreational cannabis use on a billboard in Garden Place, Hamilton, on 8 October 2020.

NZ’s cannabis referendum split the country. Photo: Getty

“The NZ Greens, in government with Labour, have put recreational cannabis on the agenda this election, and the same can happen here,” Mr Bandt told The New Daily. 

At the moment, only ideological blinkers have prevented the major parties from embracing recreational cannabis, but the tide is turning.”

Legalising cannabis would put $4 billion back in the public purse ‘just when we need it most’, Mr Bandt said.

“The Australian Government does not support legalising cannabis for recreational use,” a spokesperson for Health Minister Greg Hunt told The New Daily.

While many Australians “may view cannabis use as harmless, almost a quarter of Australia’s drug and alcohol treatment services are being provided to people identifying cannabis as their principal drug of concern”, the spokesperson said.

However, the spokesperson also pointed out that “issues relating to legalisation or decriminalisation of cannabis are predominantly matters for the states and territories.”

Mr Bandt said the Morrison government was missing the opportunity to ‘smash’ criminal gangs while creating employment by legalising cannabis.

“By failing to recognise the benefits of legalising recreational cannabis, the government is ignoring the massive benefits of a controlled industry,” he said.

35 per cent of Australians have tried it or used it socially, but Australia’s prolific usage is currently only supporting the black market.”

Greens leader Adam Bandt wants cannabis legalised. Photo: AAP

For the first time, the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey showed that more Australians now support the legalisation of cannabis (41 per cent) than oppose it (37 per cent).

Professor at the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University Nicole Lee said the survey results were ‘significant’.

“There’s a lot of support in the community,” she said.

“At the moment the states and territories are responsible for drug policies.

“Depending on what state you’re in there are different consequences for using it.”

The Australian Capital Territory became the first state or territory in Australia to legalise cannabis a year ago, and police data shows there has not been any meaningful increase in cannabis-related arrests since.

South Australia and the Northern Territory both decriminalised cannabis for personal use three decades ago.

Cannabidiol could be available as an over-the-counter purchase by as early as mid-2021. Photo: Getty

On the flip side, Queensland has some of the strictest cannabis laws, Professor Lee said.

“Queensland has pretty conservative laws,” she said.

“Police can choose to send you to education or treatment, which is known as diversion, rather than to charge you.”

In Victoria, Reason Party leader Fiona Patten is currently chairing a parliamentary inquiry into cannabis use in the state.

“We are considering how you manage cannabis use in the most effective way,” Ms Patten said.

New Zealand is simply “following the trend happening across the world”, she told The New Daily.

The whole of the Pacific coast of America from Canada to Mexico have legalised and regulated cannabis,” Ms Patten said.

“Now we are seeing one of our closest Pacific neighbours follow.”

Australians under the age of 30 are “twice as likely to use cannabis than tobacco”, Ms Patten said.

“This isn’t about whether cannabis should be available … this is about how governments can regulate it and keep it out of the hands of criminals and children,” she said.

There are many different approaches to cannabis legalisation around the world, Professor Lee explained.

“There is the ACT homegrown model, where one person is allowed to grow four plants for personal use, there are social clubs in Europe, there’s a very free market operating in the US, and there’s a more restricted market in Canada,” she explained

There is one overwhelming similarity, however, and that is that cannabis legalisation does not cause a big increase in usage.

“One of the biggest harms from cannabis is contact with the legal system,” Professor Lee said.

“When you decriminalise it or legalise a drug, it means people don’t come in contact with the criminal justice system and that significantly reduces harms.”

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