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Let the People Choose: Will Kiwis Vote to Legalize Recreational Cannabis?

cannabis new zealand
Written by Sarah Friedman

New Zealand has an interesting election coming up this September. Sure, they’ll vote for who they want in government, but they’ll also vote on the 2020 New Zealand Cannabis Referendum for whether they want to legalize recreational cannabis.

In early December, 2019, a Cannabis Legislation and Control draft bill was released. Earlier this month, an outline came out for the public describing what recreational cannabis legalization in New Zealand might look like as per that bill. Here are some of the proposed provisions that New Zealanders will be considering when voting September 19th:

  • Only adults age 20 and older can buy and use cannabis.
  • Providing cannabis to anyone under 20 is a criminal offense.
  • THC levels are set at 15%
  • Advertising cannabis is banned
  • Marketing cannabis products is highly restricted, with a mandatory stress put on the ideas of encouraging health, and minimizing harm.
  • Cannabis can only be used in private, or in permitted areas.
  • Cannabis cannot be bought online – only in stores.
  • Edibles and concentrates can be sold but are regulated.
  • Concentrates must be bought; however individuals can make edibles at home.
  • An individual can grow two plants, and a family can have up to four.
  • Social sharing is permitted, meaning people of appropriate age can use cannabis together.
  • Only government licensed wholesalers are permitted to import cannabis or cannabis products.
  • The max allotment of cannabis per day, per person, is 14 grams.

This new bill comes on the heels of updates to the medical marijuana program in New Zealand. However, Ross Bell, the executive director of the Drug Foundation made the very astute point, “Let’s say the medical cannabis scheme is too strict, there are fewer products and the products that are available are very pricey – then the referendum becomes important”.

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Let’s back up and check out medical cannabis in New Zealand

In December of 2017, the New Zealand government proposed a medical cannabis bill, mainly geared toward the terminally ill. However, it wasn’t until a year later that it officially passed parliament as The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill. At first it was meant to be for those who were terminal within a year. But was extended to include all who required palliative care.

The new medical cannabis updates

There were many issues with the original system, mainly with medicine costs and general accessibility. As of April 2020, this was all updated. The Ministry of Health’s Medicinal Cannabis Agency, premiered a new Medical Cannabis Scheme meant to improve both quality of products, and access to them. This was done in conjunction with the updating of the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Regulations 2019, which legalized the commercial cultivation of cannabis along with manufacturing and distribution.

Right now, medical costs are high for cannabis medications in New Zealand as they have to be imported from other countries. The new regulations were made to help shift the cultivation and production burden back to domestic soil in an effort to bring down costs. Applications for cultivation licenses have already begun to be submitted to the Medicinal Cannabis Agency with approvals expected by mid-year.

Prescriptions are still necessary from a doctor, and no smokable products are sold (only vaping!), along with other products like tablets, and tinctures or oils. Another useful update is in how medications are prescribed. Prior to April of this year, doctors had to get an approval from the Ministry of Health for the prescription of certain products, and each case had to be evaluated separately. Under the new update, these requirements are no longer necessary making prescribing cannabis medications much easier.

Without legalization, what are New Zealand’s other cannabis laws?

In this article we jumped right into the issue at hand, an upcoming election where the people of New Zealand will vote for themselves on whether they want to legalize recreational marijuana under the provisions listed above. Then we backtracked to see where the country stood on medicinal cannabis. But what are the standard laws without this recent possibility for legalization?

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Cannabis laws in New Zealand

Cannabis use in New Zealand is governed by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. According to these laws, any amount of possessed cannabis is a crime. Cannabis is a class B drug which correlates to ‘high risk of harm’. Because of this, and unlike other lesser classes of drugs, a custodial sentence of some kind is required in court.

Being caught using or possessing weed can lead to a 3-month prison sentence, a fine of up to $500, or in the case of the luckiest offenders, both! Luckily, law enforcement officials tend to turn a blind eye to most personal use cases where only small amounts are involved. Prison sentences are sometimes waived in circumstances where it can be proved that the individual in question only had the cannabis in order to keep another person from committing a crime with it, or if it can be shown that the person in question had it only to pass onto law enforcement.

Supply crimes are illegal, however, under the Misuse of Drugs Act they are not differentiated from use or possession crimes, and incur the same penalties. This goes for more minor selling and supplying activities, though. Selling, supplying, or trafficking on a large scale are considered much bigger infractions, and can incur up to seven years in prison particularly for importing or exporting of a drug.

Unless the referendum changes it, the current law states that personal, or any non-governmental, cultivation is illegal as cannabis is a ‘prohibited plant’, and comes with a prison sentence of up to seven years for convicted offenders.

What about CBD and hemp?

At first, CBD was only available per prescription under the medical cannabis program. An update in 2018 changed the legal status of the cannabinoid, so that it is no longer listed as a controlled substance, or subject to that regulation. Now it can be purchased without a prescription, so long as the THC levels don’t exceed .2% (much like in the EU).

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Hemp is legal to grow in New Zealand with the correct licensing, which can be gotten from the government. Technically, hemp is considered a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but it is legal to cultivate it so long as the max THC level is below .35%. As per the law, the hemp can never be advertised as having psychoactive properties, and it can’t be given to anyone unauthorized. Furthermore, only very specific strains can be cultivated, and these are decided on by the Director General of Health.

Licenses typically last for a year, and cost in the neighborhood of $511 (incredibly low when compared to countries like Lesotho or Zambia). There is also a research and breeding license offered for $153 more – still tiny potatoes compared to licensing deals offered by other countries who have also legalized for commercial use.

A bit about referendums

Referendums are actually a big part of New Zealand’s democratic system and they essentially ask the public to vote on a question. There are two types of referendums, citizens-initiated, and government-initiated. Citizens-initiated referendums can be called by any individual of the public, but are always non-binding, meaning they have no legal effect. The government can completely ignore them if it pleases. Government-initiated referendums are binding if a law has already been passed in parliament, and the public’s choice sets the official outcome. If they are meant to test public opinion, they are non-binding and hold no legal consequence.

This referendum comes with some complications, as pot legalizations tend to, mainly in the form of international and foreign policy concerns due to New Zealand being a part of the United Nations Drug Conventions. Certain issues have been delayed till after the bill passes, if it does.

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And it comes with one more issue…it’s not technically binding. No bill to enact the legal changes was ever passed by parliament, just draft legislation. And while the draft legislation has been supported by all parties, this does not qualify as legally binding for a referendum. Plus – and this is almost funny – this non-binding referendum is taking place on the very same day that government elections are taking place, meaning that it’s not impossible to have a completely different government makeup by the end of it, and possibly one not as quick to pass the draft legislation into real legislation. The general impression given is that the result of the referendum will hold regardless, but the real answer to this will only be known after September 19th.


Putting it to the people is always interesting, and realistically, one of the fairest ways of passing laws. In this case there’s the question of whether the referendum will pass, and the question of whether the government will choose to uphold it if it does. Either way, it says a lot about New Zealand sentiment toward cannabis in general that this referendum is happening at all, and even if it fails now, something should be passing soon enough.

Food for thought: On the same day as the election and the cannabis referendum, New Zealanders will also vote on one other referendum, the End of Life Choice Bill which would allow for euthanasia legally.

Thanks for stopping by, we’re happy to keep you updated on everything in the world of legal cannabis. Stop by frequently and make sure to subscribe to the CBD Testers Weekly Newsletter to keep up-to-date.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.