Wellington, May 24, 2018
Suggestions that the Government wants to bring forward the timing of the Referendum on recreational cannabis make good political sense.
The current plan to hold the Referendum at the same time as the next General Election makes sense from a costs point of view, but has the potential to be a political disaster for all concerned. It would be inevitable in such circumstances that the election campaign would be dominated by the cannabis Referendum, something none of the political parties would want.
So, getting some agreement across party lines to bring forward the date should not be too difficult to achieve. A postal vote late next year appeals as a likely best option, but it will not be as simple as that. Resolving the logistics of the timing of the Referendum is but chickenfeed, compared to what the Referendum will actually be about, and how, in the event of an affirmative vote, the outcome will be implemented.
Informing the people
The Justice Minister has already referred to the need for voters to be properly informed so they can cast a quality vote in the Referendum. Some form of independent, properly resourced, expert panel will obviously be required to ensure all the relevant information is put before voters in a credible and dispassionate way. Ideally, the panel should run for some time before the Referendum to give as many people as possible the opportunity to interact with it. But this is not an impossible task.
The bigger issues relate to the type of regulatory regime proposed for cannabis, should the voters say yes. Ironically, the way we treat tobacco might be the way forward.
Tobacco products are sold in a heavily regulated market, with no advertising or promotion permitted, and sales restricted to those over the age of 18, with heavy Government taxes applied. At the same time, the domestic cultivation of tobacco plants is permitted, but those plants can only be for personal use, and any form of supply to others is a criminal offence.
If the Government is thinking along these lines, then the Referendum will need to be designed to reflect this, so the public can be absolutely clear what they are being asked to vote upon.
If the Government has another regime in mind, then it will need to present that to the public with equal specificity.
The worst thing the Government could do would be to have a simple yes/no option on the ballot paper. All that would ensure is that the balance of this term of Parliament, and probably the next election campaign, would be spent arguing about how the recreational use of cannabis was to be organised – the very thing the Government seems to be wanting to avoid by thinking of bringing the Referendum forward.
The 1993 MMP Method
The best way ahead for the Government would be to follow the example of the 1993 MMP Referendum. In that case, the new regime was put in place by legislation passed by Parliament before the Referendum, and which was only triggered by a positive vote in the Referendum, meaning that MMP could be introduced for the 1996 election. Under a similar scenario, the new regulatory regime for recreational cannabis would come into effect once the Referendum voted yes, taking the issue off the 2020 election agenda.
To get to this point, however, will require a great deal of very considered and precise work by the Ministries of Justice and Health, and a Bill to be in Parliament within the next three months or so, and passed by early next year, so that the regulatory regime and the public information panel can be established in time for a postal vote in – say – November, (bearing in mind that the August-October period will be dominated by the local body election campaign).
Other priorities to be addressed
Right now, both Justice and Health seem to have many other priorities than cannabis, so all this seems very unlikely. And the Minister responsible has already said no meaningful progress is likely before a budget allocation next year so, sadly, the risk of a botched Referendum seems much more likely, and with it more uncertainty, which will raise suspicion that Labour and New Zealand First are colluding to just play games with the Greens on this issue.
The one certainty, however, is that whatever the process and timetable from here, and whatever the outcome of the Referendum whenever and however it is held, cannabis related issues are not going to slip off the political landscape any time soon.
Peter Dunne is a former Minister in the Labour and National governments and former Leader of the UnitedFuture Party, which he wound up soon after retirement from politics. He lives in Wellington.
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