When New Zealand goes to the polls in eight weeks voters will also be asked whether or not they support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.
Lucy Drake canvasses local candidates and experts on the issue.
Chris Wilkins says political parties need to lay out their views on cannabis legislation now because this year's referendum would be just the beginning of reform.
The Massey University Associate Professor, who in is the Prime Minister's Scientific Advisors Expert Committee on cannabis law reform, said it was important to set out the unit's own plans quite clearly.
"Because my concern is people will vote on the referendum but the actual legislation will still go through the legislative process and it will be subject to what the political parties think about it," he said.
Wilkins, who has expertise in drug trends, drug markets, public health, and drug policy, said the pro of the bill passing would be that people will no longer be arrested and convicted for cannabis offences.
"That's quite a big deal because people that receive a conviction early in life in their teenage years take that conviction through their whole life so it can be a big issue and also drug enforcement tends to target vulnerable groups like Māori, young people and young men so it's kind of unfair."
But cons would be how commercialisation of selling cannabis was going to be controlled, he said.
"That's not going to be very easy to do because the proposal with the commercial industry they're going to be noticeably quite hard to control so I think the real challenge for the Government is to make sure that there's more involvement of not-for-profits and non-commercial ways of getting cannabis under the legal regime."
Local electorate candidates have mixed views on the referendum - or are undecided.
Whanganui MP and National candidate Harete Hipango believed the referendum was not only badly timed but indicative of the Government's health priorities.
"Cannabis will enhance and increase health and social problems and burdens," she said.
Hipango said the referendum at the time of Covid-19 with increased mental health issues was "anathema" to the promotion of good health.
In a recent column Hipango said she supported decriminalisation for personal use but said: "I am yet to be persuaded by and convinced of a robust and plausible argument in favour of the legalisation of recreational cannabis."
Labour's Whanganui candidate, Steph Lewis, said she supported the use of medical cannabis and the decriminalisation of cannabis.
"I would far rather see it treated as a health issue and more support given to drug and addiction services," she said.
She had not made up her mind yet on the proposed bill but was open to having a discussion with people and hearing their views.
She said being the daughter of a Whanganui prison officer who worked in the at-risk unit and saw the impact drug addiction had on people, she learnt cannabis could have a pretty big impact on mental health.
"But according to polls, almost 75 per cent of all New Zealanders have tried it at some point in their life. It seems really silly to criminalise something that the vast majority of New Zealanders apparently do," Lewis said.
Green Party's Whanganui candidate, Alan Clay, said he was strongly in favour of the bill and would be voting yes.
"Our drug laws need reform in this country," he said.
"It's shocking the way people are forced to go to criminals to buy what is effectively a medicine, because cannabis is a medicine and it's shocking because that's what leads drug-takers into heavier and heavier drugs."
He said if it became regulated and was sold in controlled premises it was no longer going to be a gateway drug.
"We've done door-knocking in the last few weeks and I think it's going to be a big issue in the campaign.
"I think it's going to bring out a big vote. I think a lot of people are going to come out and vote that maybe haven't done otherwise."
The Rangitīkei Green Party candidate, Ali Hale Tilley, said she also supports the proposed bill.
National's Rangitīkei MP Ian McKelvie said he was against the bill. He said one of his concerns after talking to a number of people was that there seemed to be a lot of confusion with people thinking it was about medicinal cannabis which it was not.
The chief executive of the Life Education Trust, John O'Connell, said whether the legislation was passed or not did not make a difference to the children the trust educated as they did not fit the profile on who could consume cannabis.
"One of the things we think is really great about the debate is that everyone - be it for or against - acknowledges the harm and the risk to the adolescent brain so we're absolutely rapt that the draft legislation recognises it and the debate leading up to the referendum has recognised that."
Associate Professor Joseph Boden, from the University of Otago, who specialises in psychosocial causes and consequences of substance use, abuse, and dependence, is in favour of legalising cannabis.
He said in a study over a 25-year period through the Christchurch Health and Development team, 80 per cent of the cohort tried cannabis.
"When people were arrested or convicted 95 per cent went on to carry on using the same level of cannabis or even increased their use. If you have the force of law applied against you it doesn't deter you."
Boden said they also found the Māori cohort were three times more likely to be arrested for a cannabis offence than non-Māori.
"This suggested the law is being implied in a racially advised manner which means the prohibition is not an effected solution to the problem of people using," he said.
"The solution would be to legalise it and regulate it to keep it out of the hands of young people as it is much better for there to be licensed retail operators selling it than gangs and tinny houses and other drug dealers, because they don't check IDs."
However, Boden did not think the referendum was the best way to make laws.
"The fact it's non-binding as well is another difficultly because again we still then have to have a political process, and nowadays with the prevalence of fake news it's very easy to appeal to emotion then rather than act and use social media to play into people's already formed opinions," he said.
The Ministry of Health and district health boards are politically neutral and were unable to comment.
Labour's Rangitīkei candidate, Soraya Peke-Mason, Māori Party Te Tai Hauāuru candidate Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, Te Tai Hauāuru MP Adrian Rurawhe and Te Oranganui have also been approached for comment.
How do I vote?
The cannabis referendum will be at the same time as the general election, which is on September 19. There will be two voting papers - one for your election vote and one for the referendum.
You will be asked: "Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?"
There will be two options:
• Yes, I support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.
• No, I do not support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.
Advance voting begins on September 7, and people overseas can vote from September 2. You need to be enrolled to vote. To be eligible for enrolment, you must be 18 years or older, a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident, and have lived in New Zealand for more than one year continuously at some point.
When would it come into force?
This is not set in stone. If a majority votes yes in the referendum, it will be in the hands of the next government to pass the legislation, and will depend on its priorities, and how long the implementation period is. If a majority votes no, nothing changes.
What does the Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill do?
It would make it legal to use or grow cannabis for recreational purposes in New Zealand.
The production, supply and use of cannabis would be regulated by a new government-controlled authority.
Only people 20 years and older would be able to buy cannabis, and they would be able to buy up to 14 grams of dry leaves a day. That is also the maximum amount you are allowed to have in your pocket in public. It is enough to make up to 40 joints, and at black market prices would cost around $200.
You would not be able to light up a joint on the street, in a bar, or in your car. Smoking and consumption would be limited to your home or to specialised bars. "We don't expect a Amsterdam-style coffee shop culture," said Ross Bell, executive director of the NZ Drug Foundation. "It is more likely to be a lounge room attached to a retail store."
The proposals for the cannabis industry are designed to keep it small, tightly regulated and out of sight.
You would be able to buy cannabis in only licensed, physical stores. Online and remote sales would be banned, as would importing cannabis. There would be a total ban on marketing, advertising and promoting cannabis products, even inside cannabis shops.
Cannabis potency would be restricted and clearly stated on a product's label - like the alcohol level on a beer bottle. Products would have to be sold in plain packaging and have health warnings - similar to cigarette packs. Edible cannabis products would also be available, but would be more strictly controlled.
The finer detail is yet to be worked out, but commercial supply would be capped at existing levels of demand, and reduced over time.
Companies would be limited to one part of the supply chain. For example, growers could not also be retailers. This is part of a plan to avoid a "Big Cannabis" takeover, as has been the case overseas. Tax on cannabis sales - which would be higher for more potent marijuana - would be channelled into harm reduction.