Dec. 18 (UPI) -- New Zealand will hold a binding referendum in two years to legalize personal marijuana use, Justice Minister Andrew Little said Tuesday.
"It will be held at the 2020 general election. The agreement is that it will be binding. There is a bit of detail still to work through," Little said.
The New Zealand Drug Foundation commissioned a study to analyze the economic benefits of legalizing cannabis.
"We're still trying to address the cannabis problem through a law enforcement approach but we're criminalizing people and we're not providing help to people who have a cannabis dependency," said Ross Bell, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation. "Governments have handed control of the cannabis market to the criminal black market. We're saying, regulate that market, take it out of the hands of the criminal black market and put tight regulations in place."
Sense Partners economist Shamubeel Eaqub said the country could save $14 million by handling cannabis as a health issue rather than a criminal justice matter. He cited several U.S. states and Canada as examples of how to regulate and tax marijuana.
"The cost of putting someone in health is half of that of locking them up and putting them through the courts," Eaqub said. "We get to bring a lot of the revenue off the black market, from the criminal economy, into the full economy. That gives us fiscal resources as well to be able to deploy into the economy."
Studies show half of New Zealanders have tried marijuana and by legalizing it, the country could save millions in the criminal justice system while raising new tax revenue.
New Zealand could become just the third country in the world to legalize marijuana behind Uruguay and Canada.
Green Party reform spokeswoman Chloe Swarbick said the party is "stoked" that cannabis will be on the 2020 ballot and the outcome will be binding. That's critical because the Labor-led coalition that got cannabis on the ballot could be out of office by then. Because the election results will be binding, a new regime couldn't toss it out.
"We don't have to re-invent the wheel here, because we have the opportunity to look at best-practice frameworks around the world that minimize harm," Swarbick said.