New Zealand has taken two giant strides towards becoming a world leader in the cannabis industry during an exciting month for the country’s marijuana advocates.

First up it legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes as the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill passed a third reading at the House of Representatives. It will be enshrined in law imminently after gaining support from coalition government partners the Labour Party, NZ First, and the Greens.

Then it announced this week that it will hold a referendum on legalizing cannabis for recreational purposes during the 2020 general election. That means the people of New Zealand can vote on whether marijuana should be legalized for all citizens and not just people with medical conditions.

New Zealand has one of the highest cannabis consumption rates in the world and the public seems broadly in favour of a law change.

A study conducted earlier this year by the NZ Drug Foundation found that two-thirds of New Zealanders support the legalization of cannabis for recreational use. “These results show that New Zealanders are ready for a future under which cannabis is regulated,” said Ross Bell, executive director at the foundation. “People realise that the way we’re currently dealing with cannabis isn’t working.”

The only countries to legalize cannabis for recreational purposes are Uruguay, Canada, South Africa, Luxembourg, and Georgia, although only the first two have commercial industries. New Zealand could well join them as it already has one of the highest cannabis consumption rates in the world and the public seems broadly in favour of a law change.

When they vote for a new leader in 2020, New Zealanders will also be able to tick a box declaring their support for legalizing cannabis. If the vote goes in favour of legalization, it will go into effect immediately.

Green Party politician Chloe Swarbrick, a long-term cannabis advocate, welcomed the news. However, she said she will lobby the government to pass a law before the referendum that provides a framework for how legalization would work if the people vote for it. She hopes to achieve clarity and certainty before the vote is taken to avoid the sort of chaos caused by the Brexit vote in the UK.

Opposition politicians fear the issue around cannabis legalization will dominate the election campaign and cloud more important matters. Voters’ attention could end up being split even further, as the ballot might also include a vote on euthanasia and one on a possible change to the country’s electoral system.

Political commentators expect a strong turnout for the 2020 vote, with young people expected to show their support for legalizing marijuana and the older generation likely to be mobilized by the euthanasia issue. If New Zealand decides to legalize cannabis, it could spark a domino effect across the Pacific region and also encourage Australia to hold a similar referendum.

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