The Government’s Medicinal Cannabis Bill will take effect next year, a few months before the referendum on making cannabis legal.
The medicinal cannabis bill will be reported back from the health select committee in July.
But according to a timeline in the documents released under the Official Information Act, it will be another year before it takes effect.
Inexplicably, the bill is scheduled to be debated in Parliament this September, but they don’t vote on it until next March. It finally gets the Governor-General’s signature in June 2019. They can then start on the regulations for local production, so that will take another year.
It means patients who meet the Bill’s definition of being terminal – assessed by a doctor as having less than 12 months to live – will probably not be around to qualify for a statutory exemption allowing them to obtain, possess and use cannabis to ease their suffering.
As for the Bill itself, the Health committee may recommend changes, and any MP can propose amendments during that September debate in the House. They certainly need to.
The Bill was widely criticised as falling short on Labour’s election pledge to “legalise medicinal cannabis” for terminal conditions and chronic pain. It does three things:
- Deschedule cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive cannabinoid. A symbolic gesture more than anything else, as regulations were changed in 2017 to achieve much the same thing.
- Create a statutory exemption for terminal patients (only) against charges of obtaining, possessing or using cannabis. This was widely criticised for excluding patients suffering chronic pain (the documents show the Ministry of Health believed that would extend the defence to too many patients. They also believe the Police will bring forward prosecutions to test the exemption).
- Create a new regulation-making power to set production standards for cannabis-based medicines. The bill does not actually set those standards and it is unclear, from both public statements and the document stash, what they will be. It’s also unclear how any production will be licensed, given the Misuse of Drugs Act allows licences only for research or study.
That’s a lot of uncertainty to base an industry on.
Or to hope that it will make much difference if you are suffering and could benefit from cannabis now.
I think Labour know this. So they are offering a cannabis referendum as “part two”.
If it passes and any adult can grow their own cannabis, or perhaps buy it from a licensed store, there will be no need to put forward a liberal, US-style, medicinal cannabis scheme which they feel would inevitably be watered down.
Instead, they’ve put forward a conservative, Australian-style, scheme where the only pressure will be to make it better, not worse. And if Parliament doesn’t make it better, it will all be fixed by the referendum anyway.
The referendum was intended to be held at the same time as the next general election, in 2020.
In US states that have held cannabis ballots there has been an observable shift in voter turnout, of a few per cent, in the direction of leftwing and liberal candidates.
Enough to possibly make a difference in the next election. Enough for Winston to not want that.
That’s why, I suspect, NZ First are so keen on David Seymour’s euthanasia bill being tied to a referendum. That almost guarantees it will be tied in with the cannabis vote, and that it will not happen at the next general election. Because no politician would want that discussion happening when their job is up for renewal.
Hence, the talk of 2019, probably during the local body elections. That’s probably a good thing as it will help to take the politics out of the rational discussion this country needs to have.
But contrary to much of that talk, the referendum could still be binding. In fact, no decision has been made.
That flurry of media excitement came from one reporter asking the leaders of the governing parties and getting different answers.
The fact they all said different things was a big clue that no strategy on the referendum had been devised and no decision had been made.
I talked to Andrew Little, the minister in charge of the referendum, and said the two biggest issues that need to be resolved are linked: what should the question be, and should it be binding?
If the question is binding, it only needs to win by 50.1% which means the question can be bolder: making cannabis legal like Canada, Uruguay or nine US states. It also implies we will know exactly what we’re voting on, with a specific model put forward.
If the question is non-binding, it really needs to pass by 75% or more to give the Government the confidence and mandate to act decisively. That means the question put forward would be more conservative: perhaps Australian-style instant fines or some other mediocre compromise that will be utterly uninspiring.
The referendum could be multi-stage or have multiple questions. It could be first-past-the-post, or preferential. That’s because each government-initiated referendum is created from scratch with it’s own Bill. Almost all have been binding. All have involved a well-funded public campaign to inform discussion.
There was nothing in this year’s budget for the cannabis referendum. Anything in next year’s budget would only allow spending after 30 June 2019. That leaves maybe four months to work out the question and referendum structure, then plan, devise, and carry out a public information campaign.
It’s not really possible. Here’s a better way forward:
Any referendum bill will be heard by the Justice and Electoral committee, who have just decided to spend the next year travelling New Zealand to hear every submission on the euthanasia bill, an epic undertaking considering over 3000 submitters asked to be heard.
They could use the opportunity to take submissions on a cannabis referendum bill, and then recommend a question and structure. A bill has to be passed anyway to create the referendum – let’s use the select committee submission and hearings process to develop the question and format, and take the public with us.
So what’s the basic take-home of all this?
Nothing is certain. Anyone can still make a difference to both the medicinal cannabis bill, and the cannabis referendum.
Lobby MPs, particularly those on the health select committee, to extend the exemption to all patients, certainly those with “severe and debilitating” conditions, and to bring forward the timetable for establishing local production.
Lobby MPs, particularly those on the Justice and Electoral committee, who will be hearing any bill to create the cannabis referendum.
The lacklustre reaction to the medicinal cannabis bill, and it’s slow progress through Parliament, holds an important lesson for the cannabis referendum: If you want to make it legal, we need to make it binding.