The Government is ramping up its research and policy work ahead of next year’s referendum on cannabis legalisation. Laura Walters reports.

The Prime Minister has directed her chief science advisor to carry out research on the harms and benefits of cannabis legalisation ahead of next year’s reeferendum.

The countdown is on to the 2020 referendum on legalising personal, recreational cannabis use – part of Labour’s confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party.

In May, Justice Minister Andrew Little and Green Party drug reform spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick announced the referendum would be based on draft legislation.

The decision to have the country vote on draft legislation led to criticism the referendum would not be legally binding, as stated by the Government.

Given the tight timeframe the Government had left itself, it would have been nearly impossible for the Government to pass quality legislation ahead of the referendum.

But those in charge are now ramping up their efforts.

As well as commissioning independent research, the Government has hired a specific cannabis policy manager at the Ministry of Justice to create the policy and draft legislation, which will form the basis of next year’s big question.

Informing the public

According to the terms of reference,  Chief Science Advisor Juliet Gerrard will produce a “short, authoritative, accessible and unbiased summary of the evidence for the harms and benefits of legalised cannabis”.

The research, which will not include recommendations, will be used to help inform the public in the lead-up to the referendum.

It will include an assessment of the international evidence for the potential impacts of the legalisation of personal, recreational use. The group will assist in gathering the peer-reviewed literature, providing a balanced summary, and placing it in the context of Aotearoa.

This information will be peer-reviewed by the Chief Science Advisor Forum and international experts.

The research will look at issues such as personal and societal harms, the potential non-medical benefits, costs to the justice system, impacts of decriminalisation and how the impacts might be monitored, and the impacts of legalisation and how they might be monitored.

The research will also identify where there are important gaps in knowledge.

The report will not address the medical benefits of cannabis or its derivatives. It will also not include anything to do with driver or roadside drug testing. Both topics are being addressed in separate pieces of work.

Once the research has been peer-reviewed and released publicly, Gerrard will brief the cross-party parliamentary group.

Research needs to be broad, delivered quickly

Independent researcher and medical anthropologist Dr Geoff Noller said this research was extremely important heading into next year’s referendum.

While Kiwis had a general idea about the potential harm associated with cannabis – especially health and safety risks – a lot of knowledge about cannabis was based on generalisations or stereotypes.

There was a lack of awareness of the social and cultural benefits, and ability to decrease the harm done by current drug policy, Noller said.

“There’s no such thing as a typical cannabis user.”

Many people’s idea of a typical cannabis user was someone who was young, “perhaps those people aren’t doing much in the way of work; they’re goofing off, or sitting in front of their xboxes”.

But New Zealand is one of the highest cannabis using countries, with 12 percent of those over the age of 15, or 400,000 people, using cannabis. Nearly a third of those people are Māori.

“There’s no such thing as a typical cannabis user,” Noller said.

Cannabis was a big part of New Zealand culture, and legislation would have a significant impact on society, he said. The research undertaken by the chief science advisor would be a crucial aspect in giving Kiwis a broader understanding of the role cannabis plays in society, which would help them make a more informed choice come election day.

The panel of advisors who will assist with the research will be announced next month, and Noller said it was important the group includes people with expertise and experience across the spectrum.

The report needed to be broad, and it needed to be delivered quickly – in time for people to absorb the material ahead of voting day.

As well as scientists, doctors and legal experts, educational experts and anthropologists should be included, he said, adding that Māori voices would form an important part of the research, as Māori had been disproportionately harmed by cannabis and drug prohibition.

The final summary of findings is due to be reported to the Prime Minister’s office mid-December, and the report will be made public by the end of January.

Cannabis policy advisor appointed

While Gerrard gets to work on research in order to properly inform the public about the pros and cons of legalisation, the Ministry of Justice has appointed a cannabis policy manager to prepare the draft legislation, which will form the basis of the referendum question.

Ministry of Justice criminal justice general manager Brendan Gage said the cannabis policy manager was tasked with overseeing the development of policy advice to Cabinet on the regulatory design of the system; working with Parliamentary Counsel Office to draft the legislation; liaising with stakeholders and overseeing development of explanatory material to assist the public in their understanding of the draft legislation so that they can make an informed decision.

In May, Andrew Little and Chlöe Swarbrick announced the referendum would be based on a piece of draft legislation, now being developed by the new cannabis policy manager at the Ministry of Justice. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The specialist policy manager started in the role on July 12, and will be paid between $137,479 and $194,088 for the year of work.

The job ad said the successful applicant would have the opportunity to lead on a “high profile, high priority piece of work”.

When Little announced the details of the referendum in May, he included the parameters of the draft legislation.

The proposed law, which Kiwis will vote on, includes a minimum purchase and use age of 20; allowing products to be bought only in a licensed premise from a licensed and registered retailer; banning online or remote sales; allowing use only on private property or licensed premises; controls on the THC potency; rules around private home-grown products and for social sharing; a ban on advertising cannabis product; a requirement for products to carry a health message; a licensing regime to control the supply chain and the manufacture of all products; and a ban on imports other than through a state-licensed wholesaler. Details of the licensing regime of the supply chain and potency are still being worked through.

The Ministry of Health is also in the midst of developing a medicinal cannabis regime. The two regulatory regimes are expected to intersect.

New Zealand is unusual in that it did not have a medicinal regime bedded in before moving towards legalisation of personal use, as other countries have done in recent years.

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