When Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister of New Zealand, in 2017, she promised a vote on cannabis legalization. Her party, the Labour party, in partnership with the Green Party, said they would make it happen before the end of their term, which is this year.
That promise is one step closer to fulfillment, even amid the coronavirus pandemic. On Friday, the legislation on which New Zealanders will vote was published, revealing the final specifics of the government’s plan for legal cannabis in the country. (Last month, as Cannabis Wire reported, the country officially launched its medical cannabis program.)
The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill would, broadly, allow for adults age 20 and older to participate in regulated cannabis use and sales. The purpose of the bill, according to the government, is “to reduce cannabis-related harm to individuals, families/whānau and communities.”
When it comes to personal cultivation and possession, individuals aged 20 and older could grow two plants for their personal use; four plants total could be grown in each household. Consumers could possess 14 grams of dried cannabis (in the US, the limit is usually set at one ounce, or 28 grams), or its equivalent. According to the bill, that is: 70 grams of fresh cannabis; 14 cannabis seeds; 210 grams of cannabis edibles; 980 grams of liquids; or 3.5 grams of concentrates.
One noteworthy departure from several states in the US that have legalized cannabis for adult use is the way in which New Zealand plans to reprimand those who are younger than 20 and who violate the Bill. In Colorado, for example, those younger than 21 who are found with cannabis, even though it is legal for adult use, can face “misdemeanor or felony charges.” But the plan in New Zealand is more lenient: “A person under age 20 found in possession of cannabis would receive a health-based response such as an education session, social or health service, or they would pay a small fee or fine. This would not lead to a conviction.”
New Zealand also plans to place a cap on the amount of cannabis in the market, which would be adjusted annually. A licensee could hold up to 20% of that cap, which is significant if the market was represented by only five licensees. But that won’t happen, as “part of the cap would be set aside for micro-cultivators.”
It’s also worth noting that those who grow cannabis cannot also “operate premises where cannabis is sold or consumed.” In the US, in states with legal adult use, consumption spaces have been slow to take hold, in part due to fears of federal backlash. But New Zealand is proposing these spaces out of the gate, either attached to retail shops, or as “bring your own” spaces. Both models would have to provide food, neither can sell alcohol or tobacco, and, if they are indoors, cannot allow for smoking or vaping.
As far as who will be licensed, the Bill has some “guiding principles” similar to some equity efforts in the US: Consideration will be given to whether the license applicant “represents or partners with communities disproportionately harmed by cannabis,” “generates social benefit and builds community partnerships,” and “promotes employment opportunities and career pathways.”
New Zealand borrows one particular approach from Canada, and that is phased product sales. In Canada, only cannabis flower was allowed for sale in the first year of adult use, followed by edibles and vapes. New Zealand proposes something similar, with only cannabis seeds, plants, and flower allowed for sale at first. There is no set date for the allowance of other products, but some details on restrictions have been laid out. For example, edibles “must be restricted to baked products that do not require refrigeration or heating.” And “beverages that include cannabis” won’t be allowed. Neither will “feeding cannabis or cannabis products to animals.”
Otherwise, much of the same regulations that are seen in states or countries with legal cannabis apply, such as daily purchase limits, quality control standards, advertising limits (in particular as it pertains to children), and so on.
Many of the details are yet to be decided, and would be discussed by a newly formed Cannabis Advisory Committee. The group, for example, would discuss potency limits and the market cap. And the program would be overseen by an entity tentatively named the Cannabis Regulatory Authority.
One area to watch will be the taxes. There is robust debate around whether to tax cannabis by percentage of price, by weight, or by potency, for example, but most states have gone primarily with the percentage of price approach. Tax and public health experts argue that a potency-based tax is more appropriate because it discourages heavy use. Also, a percentage-of-price tax would mean falling tax revenue for states as legalization spreads and prices fall.
New Zealand, notably, proposes an excise tax on products packaged for sale, and it will be “based on weight and potency,” meaning, “a higher rate would apply for more potent cannabis.”
So, what happens if voters say “yes” to legalization? According to the New Zealand government, “After the election, the incoming Government can introduce a Bill to Parliament that would make the use of cannabis legal.”