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New Zealand: Referendums on Assisted Dying and Cannabis Legalization to be Held in 2020

(Dec. 17, 2019) On December 3, 2019, the New Zealand government launched a new website to provide information on two referendums that will be held in conjunction with the 2020 general election. This followed a vote in Parliament in November 2019 to pass the End of Life Choice Bill (now the End of Life Choice Act 2019) and put its commencement to a public referendum, and the government’s announcement in May 2019 that cannabis legalization would be the subject of a referendum. The government released draft legislation, the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, at the same time as the launch of the referendum information website, in addition to setting out the two questions to be asked in the referendums. Those two questions are as follows:

Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?

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

Do you support the End of Life Choice Act 2019 coming into force?

  • Yes, I support the End of Life Choice Act 2019 coming into force
  • No, I do not support the End of Life Choice Act 2019 coming into force

Cannabis Legalization

The referendum relates to the legalization of the recreational use of cannabis. The draft bill “describes the key aspects of proposed rules about growing, selling and purchasing cannabis for recreational purposes.” On releasing the draft bill, the government stated that it reflects decisions taken by the government so far, and that a final draft will be released in early 2020 that takes into account public feedback on the initial draft. The current draft includes the following key provisions:

  • Setting a minimum purchase and use age of 20
  • Banning all marketing and advertising of cannabis products
  • Requiring the use of harm minimization messaging in the retailing of cannabis
  • Prohibiting the consumption of cannabis in public places and limiting its use to private homes and specifically licensed premises
  • Limiting the sale of cannabis to specifically licensed physical stores (not online or remote sales)
  • Strictly controlling and regulating the potency of cannabis
  • Establishing a state licensing regime by which the government licenses and controls all stages of the growth and supply of cannabis, and limits the amount of cannabis that is allowed to be grown

A majority “no” vote in the referendum would mean that the status quo continues (i.e., possession of cannabis for personal use would continue to be an offense under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, and medicinal use of cannabis would still be allowed if it complies with existing laws), while a “yes” vote would mean that the incoming government after the 2020 election “will need to follow a process to introduce a Bill to Parliament that would make recreational use of cannabis legal.” The parties that currently make up the coalition government have all agreed to be bound by the result of the referendum, while the opposition National Party has indicated that it would “respect” the result.

End of Life Choice Act

The End of Life Choice Bill was first introduced as a private member’s bill by ACT Party leader David Seymour in 2017. It was the subject of extensive debate in Parliament and a lengthy select committee process. The Justice Committee received “about 37,200 unique written submissions from organisations and individuals. In addition, Members of the Committee held over 40 hearings of oral evidence in centres and regions around New Zealand. In total, about 1,600 submitters were heard.” (Para. 41.)

The government’s referendum information website summarizes key aspects of the End of Life Choice Act 2019, which include eligibility criteria for assisted dying, ensuring a person is competent to make an informed decision about assisted dying, ensuring there is free choice to engage in the process, and the different steps in the process. For example, under the Act, to be eligible for assisted dying, a person must meet all of the following criteria:

  • be aged 18 years or over
  • be a citizen or permanent resident of New Zealand
  • suffer from a terminal illness that is likely to end their life within 6 months
  • be in an advanced state of irreversible decline in physical capability
  • experience unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner that they consider tolerable
  • be competent to make an informed decision about assisted dying

A majority “yes” vote in the referendum would mean that the Act would come into force twelve months after the date the final votes are announced.

Referendums Framework Legislation

The Referendums Framework Bill, which enables the two referendums to be held alongside the 2020 election, was passed by Parliament on December 3, 2019. The Bill “focuses on the mechanical aspects of holding a referendum” and includes “rules around referendum advertising, which are similar to those used to regulate election advertising.”