New Zealand legalized medicinal cannabis and now is on the path to admit also recreational use of cannabis through a referendum.

New Zealand to hold a referendum to legalize weed in 2020

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Benito Díaz

New Zealand is getting ready to open doors to cannabis. First, they legalized medicinal cannabis; now, they are on the path to admit also recreational use of cannabis through a referendum.

Several degrees below the Tropic of Capricorn lies this island, one of the most spectacular austral islands. The nation of New Zealand, birthplace of Peter Jackson, is the ninth country in the world ranking of cannabis consumption.

On past 11th september, New Zealand Government approved an amendment to the Drug Abuse Act, in which the benefits of medicinal marijuana were acknowledged and its trade was allowed to sick people with a doctor's prescription, always in specialized shops. In doing so, the Oceanic country added up to the long list of countries were medicinal cannabis has been accepted, like Luxembourg, Mexico or nearby Thailand.

The amendment to the law, that passed its third and last reading in the New Zealand parliament, eliminates the definition of cannabidiol as a controlled drug, making it a prescription drug.

Days after that, on the 18th of the same month, the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinta Ardens, announced her decision of holding a consultative vote, where the necessary questions would allow the process of legalizing cannabis totally in 2020, after recent polls showed two thirds of the citizens are in favour of it.

We know when it will happen, we have the commitment that it will be binding, and now the question is how to finish all details from then on”, claimed the justice minister Andrew Little, after the decission of the cabinet was made public. “Regulations, requirements for licences and the quality standards will be fixated with the consensus of experts within the year after the enactment of the law”, explained David Clark, health minister, in a public statement.


The properties of cannabis are and have been well known in New Zealand since the British colony times, although hemp never replaced the indigenous natural source of vegetal fibres, harkeke plantations. In 1927, New Zealand enforced the Dangerous Drugs Act that declares the flower of cannabis and its derivates (resin, tincture and preparations) as controlled substances. However, the medicinal use was still allowed, but only if cannabis was part of the content of a prescribed drug.

In 1967, in compliance with the Single Convention of Narcotic Drugs in 1961, New Zealand proposed their own Drug Law, forbidding marijuana definitely, along with other drugs.

New Zealand was not a great cannabis consumer back then, in fact it was after the prohibition that its use became popular amongst young college students and artists. Nowadays, it is the most consumed narcotic substance there, and New Zealand is ninth in the world consumption ranking. A UN study claims that 20% of youngsters between 15 and 45 years of age consume it, a percentage that was reduced to 19% in 2010.

In 1996 the Aotearoa Party for the legalization of cannabis was born. This party has never attained a parliamentary seat but its sole existence shows the willingness of a part of the population of tackling this issue with an open minded perspective.

Ten years later, in 2006, the first reform of the law was proposed to allow use of medicinal cannabis. This measure, pushed forward by the Green Party, Labour and Maori Party, was stopped by the majority in government, the National Party.

In 2016, the Green Party announced that if they ruled in coalition after the 2017 elections, they would legalize cannabis. Their proposal included possession and farming for personal use, as well as cannabis therapy for people with chronic illnesses. Consequently, the greens pushed forward the idea of the referendum for 2020 in the formation of the sixth labour rule in 2017.

Legal landscape in today's New Zealand

Nowadays, marijuana is still illegal and prosecuted in New Zealand, and only accepted in cases of patients with chronic pain and holding a doctor's prescription.

Regulated by the Misuse of Drugs Act from 1975, possession of any amount of cannabis is illegal. The maximum punishment for possession is imprisonment for no longer than three months or a fine of 500 NZ dollars. Growing cannabis is forbidden, with a maximum seven year imprisonment penalty. To sell, offer or supply cannabis to minors could lead to 8 years in prison. Although the right of the presumption of innocence does exist, we will have to wait until 2020 to see if they finally fulfil the promise of regulation and integral legalization, which would put an end to the raids and seizures that citizens suffer regularly and to the violence in the island.