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New Zealand Voters Get Chance To Legalize Marijuana By 2020

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New Zealand could be the first country in the world to legalize marijuana by a nationwide voter referendum.

That’s the result of a new minority coalition government agreement announced on Thursday.

As a condition of helping to install Labour Party head Jacinda Ardern as the country’s next prime minster and pass some of her legislation, the Green Party extracted a promise from the incoming government to let New Zealand voters decide whether to legalize cannabis at the ballot box by 2020.

A Global First

Uruguay has already legalized marijuana, and Canada’s government is working to end prohibition by next summer. In both of those nations, however, the cannabis changes are a result of acts of elected officials.

In the U.S., voters in a growing number of states have enacted legalization ballot measures, but the country has no national voter initiative or referendum process.

That means New Zealand voters could be the first in the world to legalize cannabis throughout an entire country at the ballot box. (In 2008, voters in Switzerland strongly rejected a marijuana legalization referendum.)

That is, if the new government stays in power and upholds the “confidence and supply” deal it made with the Greens.

New Zealand’s Incoming Prime Minister On Marijuana

Labour’s 37-year-old Ardern personally supports medical cannabis and says that she doesn’t “think people should be locked in prison” for marijuana but that achieving that outcome doesn’t necessarily “require decriminalisation.”

Now, as part of her new coalition government’s deal, New Zealanders will have a chance to push even further by voting in favor of legalizing cannabis.

In a press conference after the new governing deal was announced, Ardern said she would be “seeking advice” as to the exact timing of the marijuana referendum.

It is also not clear whether it will be strictly binding or simply an advisory measure, though the new leader indicated she’s leaning toward giving voters the power to directly legalize cannabis themselves.

“That might be a conversation we have as an executive,” she said. “I think if you go to the New Zealand public on an issue like that and it’s confidence vote, then we really should place some weight on the public of New Zealand’s view.”

As to her own views on cannabis, Ardern said that the country’s current policy, which is “a justice-based approach to cannabis in this country, isn’t working. We can do better.”

But the incoming prime minister also has “concerns about young people accessing a product which can clearly do harm and damage to them.”

Broader Drug Reforms In Play

In addition to the marijuana referendum pledge, the Greens were able to get Labour to agree to broader, if vaguely articulated, drug policy reforms. According to an email sent to party supporters, the deal would:

“Increase funding for alcohol and drug addiction services and ensure drug use is treated as a health issue, and have a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at, or by, the 2020 general election.”

The Greens also extracted concessions on climate policy and education, and will also have ministerial posts as part of the agreement with Labour.

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Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

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