New Zealand will hold a binding referendum on whether to make cannabis legal for personal use at the 2020 general election.

Justice Minister Andrew Little announced the decision on Tuesday, following the decision being made by Cabinet on Monday.

The referendum on cannabis for personal use always had to be held on, or before, the 2020 election, due to the commitment made by labour and the Green Party in their confidence and supply agreement.

Little said there were still details to be decided, including how the question would be phrased, but the timing, and the binding nature of the decision, had been locked in.

There would not be a citizens’ assembly process for policy development around what a proposed law change would look like, largely because there was a lack of time to work through the detail and the proposed legislation.

However, there would be other forms of public engagement on the issue, Little said.

The Electoral Commission had been made aware of the cabinet decision, and were now working up a plan, and a budget bid to support the referendum.

NZ Drug Foundation director Ross Bell said he welcomed the decision, and the certainty of what the referendum would involve.

Holding a referendum at a general election meant there would be better voter turnout, Bell said.

One of the criticisms of having referendums as part of a general election was the potential for people to be distracted by the referendum issue, or conversely distracted by wider policy issues and not have a sufficient level of awareness about the referendum question.

However, the binding nature of the referendum meant the exact details of the law changes Kiwis would be voting for would be hashed out well ahead of the election.

This meant there would be a bill drafted, and public awareness campaigns, ahead of the 2020 election – not during.

Bell said putting the decision to the people also helped depoliticise the issue, as it put it in the hands of the people, not the politicians.

However, National Party leader Simon Bridges said holding the referendum during the general election would distract from core issues, and was a “cynical” move by the Government.

“There are two significant issues, this will be alongside the general election.

“Obviously pretty cynical that you’ve got a government here that wants to distract from the core issues of a general election like who’s best to govern and their actual record of government over the last three years”

Possibly three referendum questions

The Government is also expecting to include a referendum question about euthanasia – relating to David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill.

Little said Seymour expected a referendum clause to be added to the bill, when it next came before the House – it is just finishing its select committee process.

“We are expecting that there will be a referendum question on those changes,” Little said.

New Zealand First has always said it would only support euthanasia legislation if it went to a referendum.

Meanwhile, there was also discussion on whether to include a third question in the 2020 referendum on electoral law changes.

The Electoral Commission had long advocated for lowering the 5 percent threshold needed for a party to be represented in Parliament, and doing away with the coat-tailing provision.

However, no decision had been made on whether these changes would be included, as Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens were still discussing the pros and cons.

“It is just a question of judging do we want a third referendum question, and the coalition partners and the confidence and supply partners are still having a discussion about that,” Little said.

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