Yes or No, the roadmap for cannabis reform


New Zealand has voted on the world’s first national cannabis referendum. NORML’s Chris Fowlie explains how cannabis law reform will happen whatever the result.

Supporters of sane and sensible cannabis reforms – who of course voted Yes! – face an anxious next couple of weeks waiting for the result, but they should take some comfort and confidence from what we know so far.

Overseas polls have consistently under-reported the true level of support given in the privacy of a voting booth. I would not be surprised if polls here under-reported true support for voting Yes.

Prior to the referendum opinion polls here put the result on a knife edge. Yet in hindsight these polls overestimated support for the conservative National Party, and they failed to pick Chloe Swarbrick would win the seat of Auckland Central.

Chloe has been the most prominent promoter of the Yes vote, so it’s encouraging to see that work did not hurt her popularity, and may in fact have helped her chances of winning.

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Meanwhile the main promoters of No – the National Party and in particular their hopeless Noper MP Nick Smith – were rewarded with a drop in support.

While Chloe flipped Auckland Central from blue to green, Smith lost the Nelson seat he had held since 1996.

The preliminary result for both referendums will be announced after the formation of the Government (expected next week), on Friday 30 October. The final result will be announced Friday 6 November.

The delay in counting votes in the referendum is not something I’m concerned about – the Government just didn’t resource the Electoral Commission to do it any quicker.

What happens if NZ votes Yes?

If the result is a majority in favour of Yes, Labour will introduce the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill and has pledged to support it passing into law.

There will be opportunities during the select committee stage for anyone to have their say and propose changes and improvements.

Those who wanted changes – such as increased plant limits, or lowered purchasing limits, or new licensing requirements – can argue their case then. I’d expect some changes to the Bill given what happened during the campaign but note the Government has pledged that no core features would be watered down. They will introduce the Bill that was voted on.

The proposed rules allow limited home cultivation by adults aged over 20, and establishes a legal framework for production and retail that favours non-profits and social enterprises, and prohibits international trade or foreign controlled entities.

Passage of the law might take up to a year, then another year for regulations and licensing, so we could expect New Zealand’s legal adult-use market to be established in 2022-23.

In time, the legal market is predicted to generate around $1 billion annually in sales taxes and levies, the bulk of which would be funnelled into local health and education services. We can expect a blip in cannabis use among older people, but use is expected to drop among youth.

What happens if NZ votes No?

If the result is a majority in favour of No, Labour has said the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill will not be introduced to Parliament.

But that doesn’t mean reform would be off the agenda – the vote was about whether or not you supported a specific piece of draft legislation called the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.

A “no” vote to that Bill doesn’t also mean no to everything else. It was non-binding, after all!

We would still have a progressive Labour-led government, with opportunities for policy and legislative reform, and as Helen Clark has noted there will be a more representative parliament containing a number of MPs who could table a private member’s bill.

During the referendum campaign, the Nopers moved over to supporting decriminalisation or other iterative steps in that direction, and we must hold them to that.

Opportunities to amend our drug laws include formalising the failed decriminalisation that is predicated on police discretion that they fail to use, or use in racist ways; expanding medicinal access to make prescriptions easier and products more affordable; and allowing patients to grow their own cannabis.

Labour could also allow the private member’s bill by National’s health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti, already drawn from the ballot, to have a first reading and go to select committee.

That bill would expand the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme to let doctors issue medicinal cannabis ID cards to patients, who could then use the cards to purchase a variety of cannabis-based products from pharmacies, with no actual prescription required.

This would be a huge improvement on the current scheme and taking the liability off doctors would potentially widen access to thousands more people, while allowing cheaper over-the-counter products.

Further examples that would have dramatic impacts on drug law enforcement could include:

  • implement the Law Commission’s recommendation to remove the Misuse of Drugs Act’s reverse onus of proof (that breaches NZ’s Bill of Rights) by presuming the accused is guilty until proven innocent;
  • remove the presumption of supply that charges people as dealers if they possess over some arbitrary amounts (1 ounce, 10 plants, or 100 marijuana cigarettes); and
  • reform for pipes which while openly sold in many stores carry a sentence for possession of up to 1 year imprisonment and a record that states “possession of a needle or syringe”.

The bottom line is that a majority No vote would reflect concerns about the draft Bill, rather than opposition to other reforms. The Nopers readily admitted the failings of the current law, so we’re all in agreement that criminal prohibition must end.

That’s why cannabis law reform can and should happen, regardless of the result of the referendum.

Chris Fowlie is the president of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws NZ Incdeveloper of the CHOISE model for cannabis social equity; CEO of Zeacann Limited, a cannabis science company; co-founder of the New Zealand Medical Cannabis Council; co-founder of The Hempstore Aotearoa; resident expert for Marijuana Media on 95bFM; cannabis blogger for The Daily Blog, and court-recognised independent expert witness for cannabis. The opinions expressed here are his own.


  1. The major trouble with putting something like this to referendum is the very nature of referenda, they tend to deliver far more conservative than progressive results, they are the refuge of conservatives (just look where most of the calls from them come, and the issues they tend to be referred to on – gay marriage etc)
    I hope this one gets through, not sure it will, if it does, it will only be the youth vote that gets it across the line.
    And if you don’t believe me about the conservative nature of referenda, I refer you to Switzerland, where it took till a referendum in 1971 (not a misprint) to grant women the vote, a previous referendum in the late 1950s (again, not a misprint) continued to deny them franchise. If that does not demonstrate how backward referenda are, then I do not know what does.

    • Absolutely, referenda are blunt tools with little reliability. People are easily captured by soundbites which makes them open to well-funded PR campaigns. Anything requiring assessment of nuance, a balance of harms, potential moral implications, ethical conundrums is not referendum material – forget it.

    • One thing the reeferendum did was show everyone’s cards on the table. All sides came out swinging, and exposed their soft underbelly everytime they took a lunge, as well as exposing their hitting strengths.

      I heard if its a no that angry andy will just decrim weed as well as repeal the 3 strikes legislation.
      However, going by global trends, and indicators like chloe and dick smith, I’m sure yes will beat nope by at least 15%.

      Nail biting times indeed, stoners may need an extra puff as they wait and see. However, whatever the result and whatever the legislative changes, cannabis use and users will have imparted a contact high and a quantum shift of consciousness among conservative NZ.

      The conversations had in 2020 will give birth to more progressive attitudes and the future consequences for stoners has markedly improved since pre 2020.

      I will miss all the diverse cannabis conversations in the media, and now need a new special interest. Studying to be a either a qigong practitioner or medical herbalist sounds appealing to me:]

      Hasta la vista my pretties!

    • My 89 ur old mother voted yes to legalization of cannabis so did all her friends, and I have heard of many many more oldies voting yes , you have conveniently left out all the middle aged people of whom there are countless that enjoys a reefer after work to help them relax and get a great night sleep, not really sure how you can compare us with Switzerland women’s vote, it has nothing to do with how our people live vote or conduct ourselves or where they get their influences from to decide how they will vote, considering Switzerland didn’t allow women voters for so long is not a great place to take note from anyway, not sure your comment is worthy of the read tbh

  2. The NZ police can be over the top sometimes. I saw them turn up at my neighbours armed when all they were doing was growing dope for their own personal use. They don’t smoke outside because of the neighbours kids and until the police turned up armed nobody knew they had been growing. These people went to work everyday and they have helped in the local community. The armed police frightened our elderly neighbours.

  3. Well I voted yes but it remains to be seen if the legislation delivers on that promise. Knowing mainstream parties it may well be a half measure.

    Anyway case of wait and see.

  4. We have a chance of a majority Yes vote, but i’m not very confident we will get it.
    The Noperz put up a huge misinformation campaign “We have to protect the kids from these druggies leaving their cannabis needles in the playgrounds of school and parks!”
    Jacinda is so risk adverse, I can see it being dropped if it fails and the government putting it in the too hard basket.
    But they have created a problem tho. They have said if the people wish cannabis will be made legal under the terms of the bill and most the experts agree, then the law needs to be changed. This sets a precedent to the fact the law is broken now and the simple fact is most the “harm” caused cannabis is from the justice system, not from cannabis it’s self. You can get a year in prison for possession of a vaporizer, yet these reduce lung damage by 95% That’s bullshit just like not drug testing drugs at big events.
    Another problem is in the USA more and more states are legalizing Cannabis this is becoming part of the Culture of young people and being glamorized more and more on social networks like tiktok this is a ticking time bomb. “Just say NO” and “Dope make people dopey” doesn’t stand up when they see their favorite content creators getting stones and being very articulate and skillful and having fun.
    They need to put education programs in that teach young people the truth about drug usage, not the normal rhetoric but the truth.
    They need to stop making adverts that portray stoners as idiots and stupid because most stoners I know are highly intelligent and these adds just insult them, that is unless these adds are just there to teach a certain narrative in the general public.

    If they was really worried about drugs they would regulate sugar and increase the regulation around alcohol.

  5. As for Reti’s members bill, this is shit

    The member’s bill under National MP Shane Reti’s name would allow for medicinal cannabis products to be approved in the same way a medicine is approved by Medsafe, with the exception of loose leaf cannabis products.

    Here’s the rub — > “with the exception of loose leaf cannabis products.”
    Read between the lines, Turn a natural remedy into a chemical soup and hand it to big farma to extract maximum profits. That’s so National Party

  6. The drug driving scare campaign run by the msm over the past year or more has probably killed the chance of legalisation.
    We may well end up with the worst possible combination of continuing with the war on drugs approach coupled with roadside testing which will enable police to target likely smokers knowing they will have cannabis in their system.

  7. I personally think it will be a yes.
    I don’t much trust this or any other government to get the legislation right, but voted yes anyway because convicting people for cannabis use is just silly and a waste of police resources.

  8. Current law is being ignored by anybody who wants to use it or grow it now.
    The govt has a choice yes or no – either work with the people or expect people to continue ignoring their stupid laws.

    • If you think the law is not being enforced..try living in rural northland where we get almost yearly visits and sometimes more than one of the police helicopter and spotter plane circling our houses.

  9. I’m going to be on the edge of my seat for the next week waiting to see if the special votes can tip the balance. But a 7% shift is a big ask, even with the unprecedented number of specials cast.

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