After months of negotiating with coalition partners, the Government has finally released details about the cannabis referendum that gives people a glimpse of what legalisation for personal use might look like.

Next year's cannabis referendum will be a simple Yes/No vote offering voters a clear choice between the status quo or a regulated legal market.

What the market would look like will be outlined in a draft bill.

In broad terms, it would be a regulated commercial market with strict controls over all stages of cannabis production and manufacture.

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If you're 20 or older, you could walk into a specialised shop and buy a product such as raw cannabis or an edible.

A cannabis Shop soon to open in Krakow. If you're 20 or older, you could walk into a specialised shop in NZ and buy raw cannabis. Photo / Getty Images
A cannabis Shop soon to open in Krakow. If you're 20 or older, you could walk into a specialised shop in NZ and buy raw cannabis. Photo / Getty Images

The products would carry public health messages and information about the potency of the psychoactive ingredient THC, recommended dosage, and likely effects.

You could then go to a cannabis bar or cafe and consume it, or do so at home or at a mate's place. Lighting up a joint on the street would be just as illegal as it is now.

You could share it among friends, though there would be penalties for sharing with underage people.

The streets of New Zealand may not look very different, apart from visible cannabis cafes and shops. A ban on advertising means there would be no giant billboards emblazoned with leafy logos alongside the country's busiest highways.

Buying cannabis online - where checking ages is problematic - would not be permitted.

If you live far away from any shop, you could buy Government-regulated plants or seeds and grow a limited amount of cannabis at home.

You could also legally make edibles like weed brownies at home, but not resin as the process is dangerous and involves highly flammable material.

But you could buy resin in a shop, as well as edibles. Including them in a legal market is a reflection of the reality that people consume them now, and banning them would enable the black market to continue to supply them.

And that is one of the main aims of legalisation: to displace the black market and cripple the livelihood of gangs, which are seen to prey on vulnerable people with no regard to their health or safety.

Justice Minister Andrew Little indicates a 'good character' test would be applied. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Justice Minister Andrew Little indicates a 'good character' test would be applied. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Whether that can be achieved will depend on the finer details of the bill, as too many restrictions will do little to weaken the black market.

High taxes and therefore high prices, a conservative limit on THC potency, and a ban on selling to foreigners would hand the low-cost, high-potency, and cannabis tourism markets to the gangs. The latter has already happened in Uruguay, where recreational cannabis use has been legal since 2013.

On the other hand, too few rules would see the same perils as the black market, according to the Global Commission on Drug Policy; profit-driven commercial suppliers would be expected to want as many people as possible to become heavy, addicted users from as young an age as possible.

The aim of the bill is for a small market with government control. It wouldn't be completely state controlled, as in Uruguay, nor the business-friendly model in California that has led to small operators being pushed out by Big Marijuana corporates.

High cannabis users

Whatever happens, New Zealanders are some of the highest users of cannabis in the world and will continue to use it regardless of its legality.

NORML NZ puts the daily user number at around 70,000 (from a 2010 Horizon survey), while longitudinal studies in Christchurch and Dunedin show that 80 per cent of New Zealanders have tried cannabis by 21, with one in 10 developing a pattern of heavy use.

Government advice is that 10 to 12 per cent of adults - about 300,000 people - use cannabis at least once a year, with that figure rising to 26 per cent for Maori. Maori are also 3.8 times more likely to face a conviction than non-Maori, and more likely to have tried cannabis before the age of 14.

The heart of the issue is whether legalising would lead to more or less harm, particularly for young people who are the most susceptible. While there is broad consensus that the status quo has failed, the great unknown is whether a legal market would be better.

The majority of cannabis users experience little to no adverse effects, but heavy use can lead to a loss of cognitive functions including short-term memory loss, respiratory problems if smoked, and an increased risk of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

Daily users have reported high levels of anxiety, depression, fatigue, and low motivation. Research also shows that frequent use by young people, especially those under 14, can harm brain development and lead to an elevated risk of psychosis.

Cannabis use can also impair driving and work; the Police Association last year discussed how to handle officers who may want to legally use cannabis, which can be detected in someone's system long after its effects have worn off.

Heavy use has also been associated with the use of harder drugs, though personality type has also been used to explain this.

Boost to drug treatment programmes

Opponents of legalisation claim that greater availability would lead to more widespread use and therefore more harm, not just to the people who consume it, but also others who might work alongside them or drive on the same roads.

Proponents argue that it would give users a clear idea of what they are taking, improve health services, create economic opportunities and weaken the gangs.

Expert advice links heavy and addictive drug use to childhood trauma, and success in dealing with those issues will depend on the availability and effectiveness of health services.

The bill is expected to include an excise tax, the revenue from which would boost drug treatment programmes; an analysis commissioned by the Drug Foundation found that a 15 per cent excise tax could yield up to $240 million a year.

There is also potential for a cannabis industry to help rejuvenate regional economies, including vulnerable communities in the regions where treatment facilities are more scarce.

But who would be eligible is to be determined. If a "good character" test applied, as indicated by Justice Minister Andrew Little, it seems unlikely that gang members or people with cannabis convictions will be able to transition away from the criminal world.

There is also no indication yet whether Māori would be encouraged to take part in any cannabis industry, though one of the stated aims of the bill is to improve outcomes for Māori, who have been disproportionately affected by prohibition .

Officials drafting the bill will also be keeping a close watch on overseas jurisdictions. While dozens of jurisdictions have decriminalised cannabis, only Uruguay, Canada, and 10 states in the USA have legalised for recreational use, and only over the past seven years.

Chipping into black market

An academic study looked at 43 documents and reviews about dozens of jurisdictions that had legalised or decriminalised recreational cannabis use. It found that overall use had increased, but noted that results were not conclusive.

The study also found mixed results in whether legal cannabis led to the use of other substances, and noted some reviews showing an increase in ER visits.

The latest data from Statistics Canada showed that legalisation, which came into effect in October last year, has already starting chipping into the black market.

The number of Canadians buying from the black market in the first three months of 2019 dropped from 51 per cent of users to 38 per cent compared to the previous year.

The number of first-time users almost doubled, while the proportion of Canadians over age 15 who had used cannabis increased from 14 per cent to 18 per cent. Daily or near-daily use has hardly changed.

Preliminary research on overseas markets where recreational cannabis has been legalised shows the black market dropping, but ER visits increasing. Photo / 123RF
Preliminary research on overseas markets where recreational cannabis has been legalised shows the black market dropping, but ER visits increasing. Photo / 123RF

A 2018 Drug Policy Alliance paper said that legalisation in eight US states had led to stable youth use, lower rates of opioid-related harm, no correlation between marijuana use and road accidents, and millions of dollars from tax revenue going towards drug treatment and infrastructure such as schools.

Other statistics point to falling teen use in Colorado following legalisation, but an increase in use among adults aged 18 to 25.

Care should be taken with interpreting any research, however, as each jurisdiction has implemented different regulatory regimes and is affected by unique cultural and social factors. Research is also seen as not giving any particular insights into long-term impacts, given how recent legalisation has been.

The low number of overseas jurisdictions to legalise is also given as a reason for incremental change in New Zealand, starting with a public debate on decriminalisation.

The Police Association says that marijuana use is effectively decriminalised already, with a 70 per cent drop in police charges for cannabis use or possession in the past decade.

Cannabis convictions where offenders were not convicted of any other offence on the same day fell from 2653 instances in 2009 to only 540 in 2018. Only eight people were sentenced to jail terms for cannabis possession or use last year.

Decriminalisation would also deprive the Government from using regulations to control the supply chain, limit the potency of products, and using tax revenue to bolster health services.

The Police Association says that marijuana use is effectively decriminalised already. Photo / 123RF
The Police Association says that marijuana use is effectively decriminalised already. Photo / 123RF

Instead a bill will be drafted following expert advice, and the question will be put to the public about legalisation. If there is a "yes" vote, the bill would then take about a year to pass through the legislative process, potentially coming into force towards the end of 2021.

The vote is expected to be close, despite most polls showing majority support for legalisation.

There will be an element of good faith involved in the referendum.

Despite claims to contrary, the referendum is not binding and the next Government could decide to ignore a "yes" vote, or change the bill substantially before passing it into law. The National Party is also yet to commit to abide by the referendum results.

All parties would likely agree, however, that it would be useful for people not to consider that and focus instead on what is being proposed when it comes time to vote.

Key points:

• The vote in 2020 will be around support for a draft bill that outlines a regulatory framework for legalising cannabis for recreational use

• A key question is whether you think the status quo is better at reducing cannabis-related harm than the proposed framework

• A lot will depend on the finer details of the framework, including the level of boost for health services, and how well it would be implemented

• Opponents say legalisation will increase availability, use and harm, including brain development for young people or an increased risk of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia

• Proponents say the right level of regulation would weaken the black market and cripple the gangs, generate funding for improved health services, and enable users to know what they are taking

• Several jurisdictions overseas have legalised cannabis, including Uruguay, Canada and 10 states in the US. Studies on the impact of legalisation have mixed results, and care should be taken as each jurisdiction has different frameworks and its own cultural and social context.