2020 New Zealand cannabis referendum

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2020 New Zealand cannabis referendum
Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?
Date17 October 2020

The 2020 New Zealand cannabis referendum was a non-binding referendum held on 17 October 2020 in conjunction with the 2020 general election and a euthanasia referendum, on the question of whether to legalise the sale, use, possession and production of cannabis.[1][2][3] The form of the referendum was a vote for or against the proposed "Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill".[4] Although the vote has already taken place, preliminary results for the referendum are not expected to be released by the Electoral Commission until 30 October 2020, while official results are expected to be released on 6 November 2020.

The results of the cannabis referendum will not affect the legal status of medicinal cannabis and hemp production, both of which are already legal.[5] They will also not affect laws regarding driving under the influence of cannabis, which will remain illegal, or workplace health and safety issues (e.g. consumption or being under the infuence of cannabis at work).[2]


After the 2017 general election, the confidence and supply agreement between the Labour Party and the Green Party included an obligation for the government to "have a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at, or by, the 2020 general election".[6][7][8] This agreement followed statements made by the Green Party in December 2016, that if it formed a government in the 2017 election it would legalise the personal production and possession of cannabis for personal use.[9][10][11]

In May 2019, a background cabinet paper outlining the options that had been considered for the referendum and the draft legislation was released.[12][13][14] The referendum was announced and defended as "binding" by prime minister Jacinda Ardern and justice minister Andrew Little, but as it will not be "self-executing," the bill will still have to pass a vote in parliament if the referendum returns a "yes" result.[15][1]

Current laws[edit]

Possession of any amount of cannabis is currently illegal in New Zealand. Cannabis use is currently controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 and the maximum sentence for possession of cannabis is 3 months' imprisonment or a $500 fine; although there is a presumption against imprisonment.[16] The presumption of supply threshold is 28 grams or 100 joints; above this threshold it is presumed any cannabis possessed is for supply. Cultivation of cannabis carries a maximum penalty of 7 years' imprisonment, while dealing of cannabis carries a maximum penalty of 8 years' imprisonment.[17] Per the tariff case R v Terewi [1999], cultivating cannabis for personal use warrants a community sentence or, if there are aggravating factors, a short-term prison sentence.[18]

Approved cannabis-based pharmaceuticals can be prescribed by a specialist doctor, but requires patients to meet strict criteria. As of April 2016, only Sativex is approved for use in New Zealand; it is not subsidised, so patients must pay the full retail cost.[19]

However, the medicinal cannabis scheme significantly modifies the medical access to psychoactive cannabis products.[20][21][22] Auditing of medicinal cannabis products under the scheme opened in April 2020. As of 23 July 2020 products have not yet been certified for minimum quality standards but approvals are expected within the next few months.[23] A list of currently approved psychoactive medicinal products is available on the Ministry of health website.[24]

Terminally ill patients have a legal defence against prosecution for possessing and consuming cannabis since the passing of the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act in December 2018.[25][26]

Referendum structure[edit]

A sample ballot for the 2020 referenda.

In May 2020 the final legislation was made available and it was confirmed that the question put to voters would be:[27][28]

Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?

The two options were:

  • "Yes, I support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill" and
  • "No, I do not support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill".

In the event of a "Yes" vote in the referendum, the cannabis bill may be introduced by the incoming government following the referendum and accompanying general election, but the results will not be binding and parliament still have the option of putting the bill to a vote.[29][1][30]

Proposed legislation[edit]

If passed into law, the proposed "Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill" would serve as the new regulatory framework for the production, sale, purchase and consumption of non-medical cannabis in New Zealand. A new regulatory body, the Cannabis Regulatory Authority would be established with the primary objectives of promoting the well-being of New Zealanders, reducing cannabis-related harm and to reduce the overall use of cannabis over time.[29]

The bill includes provisions for the following:

  • Minimum purchase and possession age of 20 years old.
  • Allowing an eligible person to purchase and possess up to 14 grams of dried cannabis (or its equivalent) per day.
  • Allowing each eligible person to grow up to two cannabis plants for personal use on their own property, up to a maximum of four plants per household.
  • A ban on marketing and advertising cannabis products
  • Requirement to include harm minimisation messaging on cannabis products
  • Confining use to private homes and licensed premises, and only in compliance with the Smoke-free Environments Act 1990.
  • Limiting the sale of recreational cannabis to physical stores (i.e. no remote or online sales)
  • Control over the potency of recreational cannabis being sold
  • State licensing regime for recreational cannabis
  • Applying an excise tax and a harm-reduction levy to cannabis products (in addition to the 15% GST which applies to all goods sold in New Zealand)
  • Establishing the Cannabis Regulatory Authority to licence and authorise supply

The full text of the bill is available, along with a guide, from the New Zealand government's referendums website.[4][31]

Public opinion[edit]

Many polling organisations ask New Zealanders questions related to cannabis legislation. Support for law reform around cannabis in New Zealand had increased in the years before the referendum.[32][33][34] A 2020 study of Twitter users who tweeted about cannabis between July 2009 to August 2020 found that 62% had a positive view of cannabis, with tweets in 2020 having a slightly higher proportion of positive views on cannabis (65.3%), while 53.5% of those who talked about the cannabis referendum were in support of the bill.[35]

These numbers tend to trend higher around support for medicinal use.[33] When voting age New Zealanders were asked in July 2017 if they supported "growing and/or using cannabis for medical reasons if you have a terminal illness", 59% responded that it should be legal, 22% supported decriminalisation, while 15% responded it should be illegal. However, when they were asked their thoughts on "Possessing a small amount of cannabis for personal use", 37% responded that it should be decriminalised, 31% responded that it should be illegal, and 28% responded that it should be fully legal.[33]

Most polling conducted prior to September 2020 asked about opinions on the legalisation of cannabis for personal use, or in some cases, about government control of use and sale of cannabis, rather than about the Legalisation and Control Bill, which was released for public consultation in May 2020. Polls asking about the specific bill showed mixed opinion, from 35% for / 53% against to 49% for / 45% against.[36][37]

A breakdown of the polls showed that voters aged 18 to 29, Green and Labour party supporters and Māori people were more likely to support cannabis legalisation, while voters aged 50 and over and National party supporters were more likely to oppose cannabis legalisation.[38]


Summary of poll results given below. Lines give the mean estimated by a LOESS smoother (smoothing set to span = 1).
Date Polling organisation Sample size For Against Undecided Lead
2–17 Jul 2018 Curia Market Research 943 49 47 3 2
15–19 Oct 2018 1 News Colmar Brunton 1,006 46 41 12 5
10–26 Oct 2018 Horizon Research 995 60 24 16 36
3–17 Mar 2019 Research New Zealand 1,220 29 49 18 20
9 May 2019 Horizon Research 1,161 52 37 11 15
4–8 Jun 2019 1 News Colmar Brunton 1,002 39 52 8 13
3–4 Aug 2019 Horizon Research 1,003 39 47 14 8
11–17 Nov 2019 Horizon Research 1,199 48 38 14 10
23–27 Nov 2019 1 News Colmar Brunton 1,006 43 49 7 6
8–12 Feb 2020 1 News Colmar Brunton 1,004 39 51 9 12
21–26 Feb 2020 Horizon Research 1,986 54 45 1 9
6–9 Mar 2020 Research New Zealand 1,000 43 33 19 10
10–14 Jun 2020 Horizon Research 1,593 56 43 13
20–24 Jun 2020 1 News Colmar Brunton 1,007 40 49 11 9
9–13 Jul 2020 Research New Zealand 1,012 43 39 18 4
20–23 Aug 2020 Research New Zealand 1,003 39 46 15 7
20–25 Aug 2020 Horizon Research 1,300 49.5 49.5 1 Tie
17–21 Sep 2020 1 News Colmar Brunton 1,008 35 53 11 18
24–28 Sep 2020 Horizon Research 1,481 52 47 5
22 Sep – 5 Oct 2020 UMR Research 1,129 49 45 6 4
11 Oct 2020 Research New Zealand 46 40 14 6
10–14 Oct 2020 1 News Colmar Brunton 1,005 41 51 8 10

Campaigning and endorsements[edit]

The rules regarding campaigning for the referendum are generally the same as for the general election. All advertisements must carry a promoter statement, stating the name and physical address of the promoter. It is illegal to campaign on polling day, or within a 10-metre radius of an advance polling booth.

During the regulated period, which runs from 18 August to 16 October 2020, promoters have to declare their campaign expenses and there are limits on how much they may spend on referendum campaigning. The maximum expense limit is $338,000 per referendum for those promoters registered with the Electoral Commission, and $13,600 per referendum for unregistered promoters.[39]

Yes vote[edit]



Political parties[edit]

No vote[edit]



Political parties[edit]

While the New Zealand Medical Association initially announced its opposition to the legislation, controversy around a lack of membership consultation led the board to retract their public stance.[64][65]


Unlike the general election, a preliminary count for the cannabis and euthanasia referendums will not be conducted on election night (17 October). Instead, the referendum votes will be counted alongside the mandatory election recount.[66]

All voting papers, counterfoils and electoral rolls are returned to the electorate's returning officer for counting. During the count, the returning officer will approve and count any special votes, and compile a master electoral roll to ensure no-one has voted more than once.[67] Special votes include votes from those who enrolled after the deadline of 13 September, those who voted outside their electorate (this includes all overseas votes), voters in hospital or prison, and those voters enrolled on the unpublished roll.[68] To simplify processing and counting, overseas votes will be sent to and counted at the Electoral Commission's central processing centre in Wellington, rather than to electorate returning officers.[69]

Preliminary results for the referendums are expected to be released by the Electoral Commission on 30 October 2020. Official results for the general election and referendums are expected to be released on 6 November 2020.[66]

Chlöe Swarbrick's surprise win in Auckland Central raised the possibility of there being unexpected turnout in favour of legalising cannabis, especially by younger voters.[70]


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External links[edit]