The government has no intentions to expunge past cannabis-related convictions if the public votes to legalise the drug later this year. Voters will choose between continued prohibition and legalisation at the polls this Saturday (17th October), alongside the general election and the End of Life Choice bill.
According to New Zealand news publication, Stuff, the Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, revealed that those arrested for cannabis-related offenses “will serve out the remainder of their sentence”, should parliament support a positive result from the referendum later this week.
This month’s public vote on cannabis legalisation is a non-binding referendum, meaning that the bill can still be voted down/rejected in by parliament. On the other hand, the vote on the End of Live Choice is binding, so it will definitely become law if it passes the referendum.
Drug reform advocates have voiced their discontent at the prospect of cannabis convictions standing after possible legalisation. They urge that people should not continue to be punished for something that would then be legal.
The New Zealand Drug Foundation Director, Ross Bell, believes that the government should consider the option of expungement. He insists that cannabis convictions have had a “profound and unfortunate impact” on the lives of many in New Zealand.
“It’s not only that but the stigma and shame they experience, and also their families.”
In New Zealand, as in many countries, having a cannabis conviction – even a minor one like personal possession – can significantly affect your life for years to come. It can impact employment and housing opportunities, as well as travel and education prospects. It is believed that there have been around 146,000 people convicted of cannabis-related offenses in New Zealand since 1980.
Cannabis Pardons in Other Countries
So far, cannabis has only been federally legalised in two countries – Uruguay and Canada. However, a growing number of US states have also legalised the adult use, sale, and possession of recreational cannabis. Many of these jurisdictions have also introduced the expungement of cannabis convictions to some degree.
For example, the Canadian government launched its expungement and pardon scheme in 2019. This scheme covers citizens convicted of “simple possession”, meaning that they could apply for a federal pardon. However, the process came under fire for being too complicated and expensive.
A number of US states which have legalised cannabis have also introduced similar measures. California, one of the first states to legalise the recreational use of cannabis. The state has since introduced the blanket expungement of previous minor cannabis-related convictions.
New Zealand’s Cannabis Referendum
While the country’s general election and referendums are just days away, the race for the cannabis legalisation and prohibition campaigns appears to be extremely close. However, health experts from the nation have revealed their backing of cannabis policy reform. Former Prime Minister, Helen Clarke, has also come out in support of the proposed bill, while current Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has kept her cards close to her chest on the subject.
Whether the decision of the referendum will be considered when the bill reaches parliament (if the public chooses to legalise) will largely depend on which party wins the General Election taking place on the same day.
While the Labour party, who is currently in power, has pledged to follow the outcome of the referendum, the National Party is yet to do the same. Support for the current government remains high in New Zealand, and it is expected that the Labour party will win another term when the public goes to the polls this week.