Cannabis Down Under: Why New Zealand’s Referendum Could Trigger Reform in Australia

by Isabella Ross


The preliminary results from New Zealand’s transformative cannabis referendum are set to be released tomorrow. Whether successful or unsuccessful, the impact of such high-profile discussions surrounding cannabis law reform will ripple across the Tasman Sea.

Greg Chipp, Managing Director of Drug Policy Australia, calls the referendum a “watershed moment” for cannabis law reform for Australia. 

“We’ve always in many areas followed New Zealand’s lead in legislative reform, and cannabis reform over there would certainly influence lawmakers and the Australian public’s acceptance of adult cannabis use. It’s a bit of a domino effect in some regards,”

With a checkered history and little support in the government nor opposition, cannabis reform has lacked significant traction on a federal level. This does not, however, mean that the need nor conversations surrounding cannabis reform are not there. 

The current landscape of cannabis law reform in Australia

In Australia, while medical cannabis has been federally legalised in 2016, decriminalisation and legal regulation of cannabis remains incredibly contentious among lawmakers. Akin to the United States, models of the decriminalisation of personal possession of cannabis currently exist in Australia on a state-level, lacking significant federal policy traction. In the Northern Territory and South Australia, minor offences related to personal cannabis possession will not attract a criminal conviction, while in the Australian Capital Territory since 2019, the possession, cultivation, and personal use of cannabis has been legalised.

The ACT’s policy reform was heavily criticised by federal politicians, including Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton who called the new laws “trendy” and “dangerous”, and attorney general Christian Porter who questioned its legitimacy in alignment with commonwealth laws. However, over one year since legalisation there has been no intervention by commonwealth powers, and compelling data dispelling criticisms of the consequences of legalisation has been released. Significantly, the ACT police report no rise in drug arrests or drug-driving charges since the legislation changes according to data supplied to ABC Hack, a major point of contention in New Zealand referendum debates.

In the remaining states and territories, diversion schemes and small fines are promoted on a de facto level, but remain unsupported by policy, a system criticised by Greg Chipp as “utterly flawed and full of prejudice in execution”.

“If you’re an Indigenous youth, you don’t get the same chance of an expiation notice or a warning as someone middle class living in capital cities. It’s at the discretion of the police officer.” 

The Guardian in June revealed NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research statistics reporting that 82.55% of all Indigenous people found with small amounts of cannabis were pursued through the courts compared to only 52.59% of non-Indigenous people. With the disproportionate treatment of Māori a significant talking-point for New Zealand’s referendum’s supporters, where data reveals that “Māori are three times more likely to be arrested and convicted of a cannabis-related crime than a non-Māori” (Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor), the parallels between the Māori and Indigenous Australian experience with the criminal justice system should not be understated.

In 2019 the Queensland government commissioned an inquiry into imprisonment and recidivism by the Queensland Productivity Commission. Publicly released on 31 January 2020, the report officially recommended the decriminalisation of cannabis and MDMA, expanding the provision of health support and drug treatment services, and eventually legalising and regulating the supply of these drugs. It outlined a net benefit of around $850 million (over £460 million) for Queensland by decriminalising the use and possession of cannabis. Further, the Commission reported that each diversion for minor cannabis possession saves around $9,200 (£4991) in criminal justice costs. Finally, the report revealed that Indigenous prisoners make up around 31% of the total number of people incarcerated in Queensland, despite making up only 4.6% of the population. With 32% of prison population growth in Queensland since 2012 attributed to illicit drug offences, the link between cannabis criminalisation and discriminatory practices against Indigenous Australians is evident. The Queensland government and opposition alike rejected the Commission’s recommendations.

More optimistically, the Victorian Government’s Industrial Hemp Taskforce released their interim report on 21 October, examining the regulatory challenges and future possibilities of Victoria’s industrial hemp industry. Co-chaired by Minister for Agriculture Jacyln Symes, Member for Mildura Ali Cupper, and Member for Northern Metropolitan Region Fiona Patten, the report emphasised the need to “invest in research and development to create suitable varieties for Australian conditions.” It also reflected a frequently raised view among key stakeholders of the “need for Cannabidiol (CBD) extraction to be permitted and streamlined through an industrial hemp cultivation license”. It further recommended raising the THC threshold for industrial hemp from less than 0.35% to 1%. The taskforce also successfully initiated a partnership between SuniTAFE and Australian Primary Hemp to create a trial site for research and development of ‘digital farming’ in Mildura. 

The Victorian legislative council has also been undertaking Australia’s first inquiry into cannabis laws, operating in the Legal and Social Issues Committee to examine access to and use of cannabis in Victoria. The results from this inquiry are expected to be tabled in Parliament on 1 June 2021.  

Following in New Zealand’s footsteps? 

While referendums in Australia are reserved for constitutional changes, Greg Chipp suggests that a non-binding plebiscite (also known as an advisory referendum) may be an effective means of motivating politicians to reflect the population’s desire for reform without significant political risk. Data from the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey reveals that 41% of respondents support the legalisation of cannabis, a marked increase from 35% in 2016, indicating that popular support for cannabis regulation is sufficient enough for a plebiscite. Significantly, for the first time in 2019, more Australians supported cannabis legalisation than opposed it, and only 22% of respondents thought that possession of cannabis should be a criminal offence. Chipp, however, warns that “if [a plebiscite] wasn’t passed, it would then entrench prohibition for another 20 years.” Direct top-down policy action provides an attractive alternative for Chipp, however he expects that this will not come under Liberal Party leadership.

New Zealand’s referendum and Labour’s subsequent election victory have made clear that comprehensive political debate and attempts to resolve misinformation that has prohibited cannabis reform since the origins of the war on drugs can happen in a way that is not politically disadvantageous to the government. For a country like Australia where the government and opposition are often hesitant to make bold policy decisions that lead public opinion, this could be incredibly influential.

The parallels between New Zealand and Australia’s need for cannabis law reform are too prominent to be dismissed; Both countries can and will see major economic benefits as a result of decriminalisation, and even greater under legal regulation. Both countries strive for reforms in their prison systems and expansion of drug treatment. Both Māori and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have long been discriminated against through draconian drug policy. Cannabis reform is now at Australia’s doorstep, and we can only hope that New Zealand’s example is enough to galvanise Australia into tangible policy action.  

Isabella Ross is an Ambassador for the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform and had advocated for drug policy reform in Australia since 2017. She tweets at @isabellakross

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