In less than one month, the island nation of New Zealand will be holding a referendum to determine if the sale, use, and possession of recreational cannabis should be legalized. If the 2020 New Zealand Referendum held on October 17 becomes law, the Kiwis will join a very select group of countries that have been successful in ending decades of cannabis prohibition.
At this point, polls indicate that it’s still too close to predict which way the vote will go, but there are a number of politicians and respected professionals in the country who have vocalized their support for cannabis legalization. One of these individuals is Len Andersen QC, the President of New Zealand’s Criminal Bar Association. He sat down with Green Flower to discuss his views on the upcoming referendum and what this vote will mean for New Zealand.
Green Flower: What exactly is New Zealand voting on in regards to recreational cannabis?
Len Andersen: Along with our election, which is now on the 17th of October, and as part of our election cycle, there is a vote as to whether our bill, which is not a statute yet but it’s a proposed statute, will be passed. What that will effectively do is decriminalize small amounts of possession of cannabis and small amounts of cultivation of cannabis.
GF: Will this also open up the door to having cannabis sold in stores?
GF: You have gone on record in the past that you are in agreement with legalizing cannabis, is that correct?
LA: That is correct. There is a huge industry of cannabis cultivation in New Zealand, [that] the criminal community has used to finance their activities.
[As well] there are a number of people who are in prison or have spent time in prison on cannabis charges which has badly affected their life. In a situation where there’s widespread use of recreational cannabis, I don’t think that it does the legal system any good to have a law that is widely disobeyed.
Another problem is that, in New Zealand, the White middle class who smoke cannabis are unlikely to come to the police’s attention, whereas the people who are out of work, which is overrepresented by our Indigiouness population, are much more likely to be searched. This is why the figures are disproportionate in that area.
GF: I’m assuming you would also agree that the police have better things to do than arrest someone for possession.
LA: Oh yes, I think that’s pretty much accepted. You’ll see the groups that have been pushing. In Otago where I live, which is a university city, there’ve been regular smoke-ins as a form of protest, which is ignored by the authorities.
GF: What do the opponents of legalization say?
LA: The issues associated with it are, there is widespread concern about the effect of cannabis on young people. We’ve had a lot of attention paid to the fact that young men, in particular, their brains aren’t fully developed until they’re 25. [Also] there are fears that legalization will make it easier for young people to obtain it. I personally don’t think that’s the case.
GF: If legalization happens, should existing criminal records for possession be expunged?
LA: I think they should be. A criminal conviction is now much more serious than it was before, particularly for a drugs charge.
We see this issue all the time in the courts, of people particularly in sports. I know that travel has stopped now [because of COVID-19] but with countries, notably the United States but other countries as well, becoming stricter on who they will allow in and out of the country. A minor drug conviction can be a major impediment to a person’s sporting or business activities and that’s something that follows them all of their life.
Andersen added that he believes there will be a strong movement to expunge cannabis convictions if the referendum becomes law. Many legalization opponents in the U.S. cited similar fears regarding youth access to cannabis, however, a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that youth marijuana decreased in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon following retail legalization for adults.
Similar findings have been discovered in Canada as well, with a recent study from Statistics Canada showing that cannabis use from teens aged 15-17 has dropped to 10 percent, down from 20 percent since pre-legalization.