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PM mulls referendum on cannabis laws

Tuesday 24 May 2022 | Written by Matthew Littlewood | Published in Economy, National


PM mulls referendum on cannabis laws
Photo: Pixabay

Prime Minister Mark Brown has not ruled out a referendum on the country’s cannabis laws at this year’s election, which has encouraged some drug law advocates.

Brown told the Cook Islands News on Friday that a referendum proposal had “been spoken about”.

“It’s a topical issue, not just here, but in other countries. New Zealand had their referendum back in their 2020 election,” he said.

“If we were going to have a referendum, it’s really just to gauge what the public opinion is on the use of cannabis for personal use.

“It would be very general, and it would be asking the public the question whether we should review our cannabis laws.

“We haven’t had anybody come to us to push this topic specifically, but it’s certainly a topic of interest.”

After hearing about Brown’s comments, Rarotonga medicinal marijuana advocate Steven Boggs said “it is now clear that the Cook Islands government is interested in reforming the laws on cannabis”.

“And this strong indication for proposed reforms is very likely to be the first transitional step to legally regulate cannabis markets in our future,” Boggs said.

“Cannabis law reform is taking place worldwide. Governments no longer feel trapped by either history or convention into continuing cannabis prohibition, and as legal regulation is more widely established, we are learning more about how to get it right.

“As the mainstream debate moves from if to how we regulate cannabis, we can get this done effectively and fairly.”

Boggs said people’s motivation for legalising cannabis is the economic and health benefits that come from regulated availability of marijuana.

“Right now, the government’s policy on cannabis is inappropriate, ineffective and completely out of date,” he said.

“Banning marijuana in the Cook Islands has failed to reduce its use and is hypocritical of the government to allow the sale of alcohol and tobacco and not cannabis.”

Boggs suggested approving medical marijuana treatment alone by a ballot initiative would set a great precedent for public health.

“A decisive change in the laws on cannabis must be made, any war against the drug has been irreversibly lost,” he said.

“Legalising marijuana will add millions of dollars to the economy, create thousands of jobs, free up scarce police resources and stop the unjust marijuana enforcement of our people.

“Increased tax revenues, job growth, and investment are powerful incentives to push for cannabis legalisation.”

In 2020, a referendum on cannabis took place in conjunction with the New Zealand general election.

It asked “Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?” – 51.17 per cent voted against the referendum question, and 48.83 per cent voted in favour of the question, 1 per cent spoiled their ballot.

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm said part of the problem with the New Zealand referendum was the fact the question was “too specific”.

“The Government had put forward this comprehensive piece of legislation, but it got lost in the weeds when it came to the actual referendum vote,” Helm said.

“I think the question was a big strategic error, it would have been better to have had a question asking about decriminalisation or even asking whether a more health-based reform to cannabis laws were required.”

Helm said the organisation’s research shows that many people who voted no were actually in favour of some form of drug law reform.

“I think it’s inevitable that in New Zealand we will see some reform on the laws if not in this electoral term, then almost certainly the next,” Helm said.

“There’s been a growing move towards legalisation and decriminalisation of cannabis worldwide, from Malta to Mexico to Scandinavian countries, you have seen a move away from the war on drugs approach.”

Helm said while it was important that countries such as the Cook Islands had “their own bespoke laws” around drug policy, there was a lot of good work done by organisations such as the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

She said these organisations offer assistance and researched-based suggestions when it came to drug law reforms.

“There are some great guides out there which can help while also ensuring the law reform remains autonomous,” Helm said.

“But it’s up to the people of the Cook Islands to make the changes.”


John Paterson on 27/05/2022

I do not agree Judy. I too am from Canada and use medicinal cannabis for eye pain from Glaucoma. It works far better than any other form of medicines I have been subscribed. I am 70 years old and have been fighting this since 2011. I start with Cannabis illegibly in 2016 and now with the blessings of new laws in Canada I am treated legally. We are coming in November for 3 weeks and hoping my one remaining eye can do without my treatment.

Sally Wyatt on 25/05/2022

The Cook Islands with its incredible growing conditions could grow and process marijuana for export to New Zealand to supplement its supply of medicinal cannabis - under license. There are some barriers. The Cook Islands would need to seek arrangements from NZ Govt so that Cook Islands growers could achieve licensed status under the NZ medicinal cannibis regime or some sort of mutual recognition of licenses. And, because there are already 50 or so licensed growers in NZ (some with massive irrigated greenhouse capacity) there may not be enough demand for growers here in the Cook Islands to warrant the effort. We have the advantage of year-round growing conditions whereas NZ does not. Provided there is demand, the hemp/marijuana industry has potential to translate into national income without the impacts on health that people are worried about: provided supply is export-only. There is a risk of crop theft but this could be dealt with by strict rules about growing and handling prior to export. For example in NZ every medicinal cannabis licence holder must handle any cannabis, cannabis-based ingredients and any medicinal cannabis products in their possession or control in a way that: effectively guards against the risk of misuse for unlawful purposes; and protects from access by unauthorised individuals and any animals. Another middle ground might be to allow growing for supply (primarily to tourists seeking holiday highs) from specialist stores, with a strict age requirement of 25+ years and highly taxed. Not advocating, just offering ideas.

Judy Millaire on 25/05/2022

This is very disappointing news for visitors from Canada, such as ourselves. 😟