A referendum is the right thing to do where hugely significant change is contemplated. Changing the legal status of cannabis from being strictly prohibited to being legal for recreational use in some circumstances is the magnitude of change that justifies going to the people for a mandate.
The referendum on legalising and controlling cannabis use the Government is now preparing for next year's General Election is about having voters, not politicians, make the call.
Whatever your take on the issue, I see it as my duty as Minister of Justice, and therefore minister responsible for the conduct of referendums, to ensure this particular process is carried out fairly and properly so that the result is meaningful and accepted.
The last thing we want is a Brexit-style approach where no one understands what the result might mean in practice and implementing an affirmative result becomes the subject of acrimonious and divisive debate for years to follow.
The Government has decided the cannabis referendum question will be based on a fully drafted piece of legislation so the full legal ramifications of changing its status will be known and understood.
The three parties in Government have committed to abiding by the result. On this basis, it will be binding.
As well as being crystal clear about the consequences of the vote (either continuing the status quo or following the draft law) the Government has a duty to do its best to ensure there is a well-supported public debate so the collective decision of 3.6 million voters is well informed.
Growing, distributing and possessing cannabis has been fully prohibited in New Zealand since 1965. And yet after more than 50 years of illegality and enforcement action reliable surveys indicate there are around 250,000 regular users of the substance along with thousands more casual and experimental users. Most appear to use it without harm to themselves or others. The supply of cannabis to this group is largely in the hands of criminal elements.
But it is a drug capable of causing harm, particularly to young users. It can and does cause lethargy and trigger depression and other psychotic responses in some. There are good reasons to vote against or for legalisation of cannabis.
Against it is the risk legalisation will lead to more widespread use, including to younger people. There is a greater risk more people will drive or turn up to work impaired, and these safety risks are too great to justify a change.
Even though other jurisdictions have relaxed their cannabis laws, mainly states in America as well as Canada, they have done so only recently - in the last 10 years - and it is too early to conclude whether doing so has reduced health and social harms.
For the legalisation of cannabis is that the significant presence of the drug in our
communities after decades of prohibition means the risks associated with it are harder to deal with. It's not possible to run public education programmes on keeping yourself safe from something that officially does not exist. It's not possible to create restrictions or ensure product safety. Those suffering addiction and other health issues as a consequence are reluctant to come forward for help. It's impossible to take it out of the hands of criminal elements.
As well as having a draft law showing how cannabis could be regulated with harm minimisation as a primary objective, it's important the public debate on the issue draws on the latest science and health knowledge.
The question the referendum really represents is whether the best way to manage the risks associated with this drug and reduce the potential for harm is to continue the status quo, with enforcement that does not eliminate the substance from our communities and leaves it unregulated, or to bring it out of the shadows so a full set of enforceable rules can be created to control its use rather than stop it altogether.
As well as having a draft law showing how cannabis could be regulated with harm
minimisation as a primary objective, it's important the public debate on the issue draws on the latest science and health knowledge. A referendum informed by a thorough factual public debate will lead to a result likely to be more credible and accepted.
The job of politicians now is to do our best to ensure a good quality debate and an
inscrutable decision. And let's remember, this will be a decision by and for 3.6 million voting New Zealanders.
• Hon Andrew Little is Minister for Justice and Courts, and was national secretary of New Zealand's largest private sector union, the EPMU, for a decade.