6 Nov 2020

'No' vote for cannabis legalisation shrinks to 50.7 percent after final votes

6:15 pm on 6 November 2020

The cannabis referendum result has narrowed significantly under special votes, but the 'no' vote has still prevailed.

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Photo: wollertz 201/ 123rf

After the special votes were counted, a total of 50.7 percent voted against cannabis law reform, while 48.4 percent were in favour of new legislation.

Just 67,662 votes separated the votes.

The End of Life Choice Act gained 65.2 percent support on election day, and after today's results has barely dropped to 65.1 percent.

Final results are now available, after about 500,000 special votes, from about 17 percent of voters, were counted.

Preliminary results on election night were 53 percent against the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, while 46 percent voted for legalisation of the drug.

Drug Foundation chairperson Tuari Potiki said although the majority of people had probably voted against the legalisation of cannabis, the government could still decriminalise the drug.

"There's a very clear call, I believe, through the referendum for some sort of change."

After the election, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she had voted "yes" in the referendums on the legalisation of recreational cannabis and voluntary euthanasia.

She has committed to progressing legislation "in line with the will of the people following the release of the final results".

Speaking at a press conference today, she said she did not regret keeping quiet on her view.

"Ultimately New Zealanders have made up their own minds ... that was my intent."

She said changes have been made to the Misuse of Drugs Act regarding people in possession of cannabis - they should be treated as a health matter. This will need to be reinforced, she said.

It's a recent change and roughly 500 people have been referred to health officials so far, she said. Possession charges were being laid if people were facing other charges, such as possession of firearms.

But Potiki said more action was needed.

"The prime minister comes out and says the reason she voted for legalisation was she believed people should not be criminalised," he said.

"We can't just say that and leave it."

The Green Party pursued the referendum as part of their confidence and supply arrangement with the Labour-led government last term. The party's co-leaders said Ardern's refusal to say which way she was voting on cannabis legalisation was only one of many reasons the referendum failed.

Shaw said the nature of the campaign and misinformation also contributed to the result.

"Actually some of the people who voted against it actually aren't against drug law reform they're just against what was on the table, so when you look at it that way the question then is what is a sensible way forward."

The party's drug reform spokesperson Chloe Swarbrick, who was championing legalisation, said many were on board with drug harm reduction but "didn't necessarily make the leap to thinking about progressing it through this quite narrow, quite niche and obviously quite complex piece of legislation".

However, she said there were more people now willing to have that discussion.

National's drug reform spokesperson Nick Smith has said his party would not support any move that would make cannabis more readily available.

The special votes also meant the National Party lost two seats compared to election night, with Labour and the Māori Party picking up one each.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark said with the razor-thin margin, some form of change on drug laws was needed and everyone should digest the referendum result and consider other possibilities.

"In the Australian Capital Territory, or Canberra, you have a law where people can legally grow their two plants - or four per household - and they can legally possess a small amount and use it. It might be that something like that would find favour."

Miss Clark said the government should be looking at ways of finding a middle ground with the public on the cannabis issue.

Awatea Mita, a justice reform advocate who campaigned for the yes vote, said such a close result was upsetting.

"To think that so many people - 48 percent of the vote - wanted change, I feel like that is too many voices to ignore, that we still need to keep pursuing some transformation of the criminal justice system, of our drug laws, to get better outcomes for everyone in our communities.

She said there was still huge appetite for change, and the government needed to listen.

Victoria University criminologist Fiona Hutton said she was disappointed New Zealand's outdated drug laws would continue to harm people.

"I am absolutely gutted by the result, I am totally devastated by it, mainly because the people who are the most harmed by our drug laws are those who exist on the margins, are Māori, are young people."

Dr Hutton said it was incredibly heartening that 48 percent of Aotearoa wanted change.

A student campaigner for the Yes vote at the university, Joanna Li, said the tightened margin made it even more gutting, but they were not giving up.

"By no means does it mean the fight is over. Still lots of work to be done, especially in the sector, and looking forward to doing that."

She said governments had ignored referendums in the past so it was still possible.

"Pipe dream, obviously, but at the very least I do hope this government acknowledges decriminalisation."

Li said despite the results, the government's green light on drug checking at festivals had been a win.

Read more about the election results:

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