The 2020 referendum on cannabis legalisation is likely to be announced this week in parliament and the debate will move up a gear when the exact format of the question is known.
I frame cannabis policies as a spectrum from conservative to liberal, with medicinal cannabis (conservative) at one end of the spectrum, legalisation (liberal) at the other end and decriminalisation (midway) in the middle.
I will give a brief perspective of each in the hope that it some small way it helps with decision making.
The terms are confusing but I will start with medicinal cannabis.
You may recall that in 2018 the Government introduced a medicinal cannabis bill that was so full of holes it was described as "legislatively lazy" and which in turn created the opportunity for me to do the work that was required to fill the policy gaps.
I led out the National Party position on medicinal cannabis with a comprehensive bill that views medicinal cannabis as a drug like any other medicine, with fast track MedSafe approvals, a medicinal cannabis card, chemist dispensing and advertising restrictions.
We agree with the vast majority of New Zealanders that there is a place for medicinal cannabis, often when other conservative treatments have failed and that New Zealanders should have improved access to affordable high quality preparations.
Has anyone seen accessible and affordable medicinal cannabis on the shelves to date ? No, neither have I – very disappointing!
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Decriminalisation of cannabis removes cannabis use from being a criminal offence but it still remains a civil offence in court for which there can be fines and consequences. This is the midway position.
At the other end of the spectrum to medicinal cannabis is the legalisation of cannabis. This is also commonly known as recreationalisation (for recreational use) and sometimes liberalisation (a liberal relaxation of the law).
In this situation the use and cultivation of cannabis is not an offence. There are often regulations as to how many adult plants can be grown in a residential area and barriers for cultivation around schools and other sensitive areas. The referendum is about legalisation of cannabis.
The United States has many decades of experience with cannabis policies which have evolved into different shades and types of policies for each state.
My general observations are that individual states often start with medicinal cannabis and then 5-10 years later a number progress to decriminalisation and then roughly 5-10 years later a few progress to legalisation.
There seems to be some benefits in thoughtfully progressing from a conservative position to decriminalisation first, almost as a required rite of passage if you will.
The 2020 referendum solely talks about legalising cannabis which, for me, seems to completely bypass the middle step.
If other jurisdictions have seen benefits in decriminalisation as a pausing point to better understand the impacts of relaxing cannabis policies, then we might also want to pause at decriminalisation to absorb any learnings relevant to the New Zealand environment.
In the cannabis debate the words matter. Legalisation is not medicinal cannabis, the words matter. The format of the referendum question will matter.
Hopefully over the next 18 months we can all get a better understanding of what is being proposed in the 2020 cannabis referendum and the implications for society.
Addendum: Having written several articles recently around the meningitis outbreak in Northland, last Friday 200 5- to 12-year-old children at Hikurangi school were vaccinated. I have previously acknowledged the community and others who have brought us to this position and I also want to specifically thank Hikurangi Lions Club who very quickly and generously contributed to the cause.
* Dr Shane Reti is MP for Whangarei