Members of the New Zealand parliament have been negotiating a cannabis legalization referendum for more than two years now, and the final details of that bill have officially been released. The cannabis legalization and control referendum will appear on the general election ballot in September, and the people of New Zealand will make the final decision.
The legislation, called the Cannabis Legalization and Control Bill, aims to establish a legal system and framework for regulating the possession, use, sale, and cultivation of cannabis in New Zealand.
“It has taken two and a half years of negotiation behind the scenes across our Parliament and decades of work by activist, advocates and researchers, who have sought to understand how best to create an evidence-informed approach to reduce drug harm in our communities,” Green Party drug reform spokesperson and member of parliament Chlöe Swarbrick said in video. “We are taking this conversation out of petty partisan politics and placing it in the hands of you.”
The Cannabis Legalization and Control Bill, if approved, will regulate how adults in New Zealand can consume, cultivate, and buy or sell marijuana for recreational purposes. Members of parliament report that they crafted this bill carefully, with the idea of harm-reduction in mind, to protect Kiwis of all ages throughout every part of the country.
If approved, adults of at least 20 years of age will be permitted to purchase up to 14 grams of dried marijuana per day from a licensed facility. Like in the coffee-shops of the Netherlands, of-age Kiwis will also be able to consume cannabis on-site at licensed businesses. Each adult will be permitted to cultivate up to two cannabis plants at home with a maximum of only four plants per household. While it will remain illegal for any individual to sell cannabis to another person, they will be allowed to gift or share up to 14 grams.
Members of the New Zealand Parliament recognize that people are going to consume cannabis whether authorities approve of it or not. Under the current system where recreational marijuana is illegal, black market dealers make all of the profit, and the health of consumers is at the mercy of the unregulated cultivators.
Buying cannabis on the black market can be dangerous because the plants are grown without strict regulations and quality control measures in place. This means that a grower may use harmful chemicals and the consumer would be none the wiser.
Purchasing cannabis that has been lab-tested for contaminants from a licensed retail facility protects the consumer, thereby reducing harm to the people of New Zealand. Licensed retailers also prevent children from being able to make purchases by checking identification, something black market dealers are not commonly known to do.
If the people of New Zealand choose to approve the referendum in September, legal cannabis purchases will be taxed, and the tax revenue is estimated to be as much as $490 million each year.
According to a recent survey conducted by Horizon Research, 54 percent of people support legalizing cannabis in New Zealand. The poll also found that 83 percent of respondents believe that the current system of prohibition is not working, and 72 percent report that “having controls for growing and selling cannabis for personal use would be better for society.”
The most recent survey, conducted in March of this year, showed a six-point increase in support from a similar one that was taken in November 2019.
“Over the next six months, Kiwis need to consider who they ultimately want to control the cannabis market. It’s either gangs or government. Through regulation you can ensure product quality, a safer environment for Kiwis, and significant tax revenue for healthcare,” said Mr. Manning of the New Zealand medical marijuana company Helius Therapeutics.
New Zealand has taken the first step towards legalizing both medical and recreational cannabis.
Peter Dunne, Associate Health Minister and a consistent critic of cannabis, has announced a change in drug policy that could pave the way for legalization.
Dunne made it clear that marijuana legalization was not being discussed. He said,
“Cabinet have accepted my recommendation that on the advice of the expert advisory committee of drugs that CBD be removed from the misuse of drugs act because it has potential therapeutic benefits to patients.”
This marks the beginning of a debate between legalization activists and prohibitionists who still consider cannabis a dangerous drug.
Hemp is already cultivated in New Zealand for hemp seed oil and industrial applications. Some of the 2006 legislation for growing hemp could be repurposed for cannabis regulations. Medical marijuana advocates like Richard Barge, part of the New Zealand Hemp Industries Association supports Dunne’s move. Barge stated,
“There are tremendous opportunities for the farmers and because we are talking about a bulky raw material, all that value-adding should be done as close to the farm as possible, like processing the fibre or cleaning and drying the seeds which creates opportunities for contractors and people to invest in infrastructure.”
Although the infrastructure and a few hemp laws could be the foundation for a brand new cannabis industry, Dunne clarified that a CBD-only program would be heavily restricted. “Farmers won’t be growing cannabis for medicinal cannabis in New Zealand full stop, this is about products that are CBD-based that are manufactured being able to be prescribed to New Zealand patients,” he said. “There is a very limited market at the moment.”
New Zealand’s black market for cannabis has increased in recent years as patients look for better treatments for cancer, epilepsy, pain and other illnesses. This likely wouldn’t change in a CBD-only market with few qualifying conditions. With no plans to form a legitimate cannabis industry, patients may have trouble acquiring the medicine they need.
“There is a big job to do educating the medical profession not just [about] CBD but about the whole issue around cannabis-based medicines, we have been talking with the medical association for some time about providing better medical information to doctors,” said Dunne.
Patients suffering from acute illness are looking forward the idea of medical marijuana as an alternative to their current treatments. “I’m on a whole bunch of meds at the moment, like a cocktail,” said Molly Kelsey, a 24 year-old epilepsy patient. “If I could even just get off one of them by using CBD oil it would be amazing. That would just change my life.”
Unfortunately, Kelsey doesn’t qualify for New Zealand’s current CBD program, even though she can up to 20 seizures a day when her epilepsy symptoms are at their worst. “My neurologist told me that … basically I wasn’t having enough seizures and they weren’t violent enough to qualify. They were looking at me having surgery, which was going to be more viable than actually getting access to CBD oil. Which is ridiculous.”
Even if this new development leads to medical marijuana legalization, there is still a significant knowledge gap among physicians who view cannabis as a dangerous drug.
“There’s no education for doctors from the medical association or from any kind of medical advisory board in New Zealand,” said Tory Catherwood, a fifth-year medical student and a medical marijuana activist. “It puts doctors in a difficult situation because I don’t think many of them would be prescribing it immediately, because they probably don’t know enough about it.”
Catherwood is filming a documentary about medical cannabis that aims to educate New Zealand physicians who are unfamiliar with marijuana as a medicine. “It’s been illegal for so long and it’s been stigmatised and taboo to talk about for so long that opening up this door, it may be a while before people start walking through it,” she said.
While speaking at charity event in New Zealand, business mogul Richard Branson suggested that farmers in New Zealand should stop raising cows and starting growing cannabis instead. He suggests that switching from cows to cannabis would be more economically lucrative and environmentally advantageous for the small island nation – especially for this country that, in 2015 alone, devoted almost 7,000 square miles to raising cattle.
Regardless of the fact that in New Zealand cannabis is still illegal, his suggestion is actually not quite as far-fetched as it might sound. Branson predicted that in ten years cannabis in New Zealand will be as normal as drinking wine. In fact, the Federated Farmers of New Zealand seem to be quite pragmatic and open to the idea as well. When the Federated Farmers president, William Rolleston, was asked to comment on Branson’s suggestion, he said,
“Farmers welcome any opportunity to add another string to their bow, and would look at that option only if it was legal and profitable to do so.”
An open mind and eye to the future indeed. But what about the true facts behind Branson’s claim that growing cannabis would be better for both the environment and farmers’ pockets? Would it really be a better alternative to raising cows?
Let’s start with cows and how they affect the environment. Cow manure poses a significant risk to local waterways, as the runoff from manure adds huge amounts of nitrogen to the ecosystem. Why is this bad? Well, too much nitrogen stimulates large algae growths, which decrease the amount of oxygen in water, killing off fish and other water dwellers. This is not only bad for the local ecosystem, but for outdoorsmen and anglers hoping to enjoy their own sports of choice. Dairy farming is widely recognized as one of the causes for New Zealand’s water pollution, so the environmental claim Branson makes concerning cow farms is not to be discredited.
Now, what about the economics of it all? New Zealand in 2015 had 1.8 million hectares devoted to dairy farming alone, a huge cow-centered industry. The average profit per hectare is about $1,500 according to a recent economic survey (or about $607 per acre), so how does that compare to a cannabis operation? Well, the Agricultural Marketing Research Center reports that the value per acre of industrial hemp is $21,000 from seeds alone, and $12,500 from the stalks. Let’s just take a very low estimate of $12,500 per acre – that would still have cannabis creating over $11,000 more profit per acre than a dairy farm.
Of course, there are many other factors that come into play before this transition could become a reality. New Zealand would have to develop its own cannabis market, with its own unique supplies and demands, so the profit margins could vary compared to other countries with currently active cannabis economies. However, it is easily shown with these statistics above that replacing cows with cannabis is indeed a viable and realistic suggestion. The decreased environmental impact with the reduction of cattle farms polluting waterways, combined with the increased profits from growing cannabis on that land instead, make it a quite attractive option indeed.
So it seems that Sir Richard Branson struck gold with not only his own business ventures, but with his casual (but highly applicable) remarks. While there are undoubtedly many hurdles to jump, legislation to be passed, and other obstacles to overcome before New Zealand legalizes cannabis, it isn’t unlikely that Branson’s suggestion might one day come to fruition. With the economic boost of growing cannabis and the environmental benefits of eliminating waste-producing cows, the farmers of New Zealand might have a brighter (and greener) future ahead.
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