Cannabis referendum: Greens not giving up on 'yes' vote yet

8:14 pm on 30 October 2020

The Green Party's drug reform spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick is not yet giving up hope the vote on cannabis law reform will swing her way.

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick

Chlöe Swarbrick believes it is entirely plausible for the final result on the cannabis referendum to swing to 'yes'. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Preliminary results from the referendum which asked "do you support the proposed Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill?" show 53.1 percent of people have voted 'no'.

Swarbrick notes however there are still about 500,000 special votes to come in at the end of next week.

"The kind of indication ... is that we need around 67 percent of those specials to be skewed towards 'yes' in order to pip this at the post."

Swarbrick said she thought it was entirely plausible for the remaining votes to swing the vote to 'yes'.

"I gave this my all, the Greens gave it our all ... we also were up against a tide of misinformation and some pretty poor form campaigning from others."

She said the 'yes' campaign had worked hard to make it a non-partisan issue.

She said the issue was always about getting the substance out of black markets, and it has become abundantly clear the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 is not fit for purpose, which is backed up by two Labour-Minister sponsored reports.

New Zealand Medical Association Dr Kate Baddock said the New Zealand public has spoken and the votes needed to be respected.

She said the NZMA position has been for decriminalisation as a social compromise, but she does not believe New Zealand is ready for legalisation.

"If New Zealanders had been ready for legalisation they would have voted for it ... the way the vote has gone buys some time for the evidence to come out from those countries that have legalised cannabis.

"When the question recycles, which I'm sure it will, there will be more evidence to inform New Zealanders' decision making."

She said she agrees with the statement that Māori are disproportionately harmed by stricter laws, and New Zealand has an increased responsibility via the Treaty of Waitangi, and said that is part of why the NZMA supported decriminalisation.

She said there is room for expanding or consolidating decriminalisation.

In a statement, Associate Professor Chris WIlkins, who was on the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor's expert panel on cannabis, said the narrow vote on the cannabis referendum reflected public uncertainty about key issues in the debate including:

  • whether the proposed regime would be effective at restricting young people's access to cannabis
  • potential negative consequences for driving safety
  • fears the proposed regime would have a counterproductive effect on anti-smoking campaigns
  • whether the legal cannabis industry could be controlled in the long term (based on the experience with alcohol)
  • whether legalisation and normalisation of cannabis use may lead to rising use and dependency with related health and social costs
  • whether legalisation would really reduce the black market and the power of drug-selling gangs

"One important positive, which potentially comes from the result, is New Zealand will now have the opportunity to study cannabis legalisation reforms and outcomes currently underway overseas in US, Canada, and Uruguay over a number of years and learn important lessons about what policy settings and regulatory frameworks are effective," Wilkins said.

He said that may help to address some of the questions that have been raised in public debate.

A senior researcher in drug policy at Massey University, Dr Marta Rychert, said there is a chance the 'no' vote in the cannabis referendum may be overturned by special votes, but it does not look likely.

She said if the preliminary result of the cannabis referendum is confirmed it would not be entirely unexpected.

Rychert said recently there have been a number of US states with failed ballots to legalise cannabis including Ohio and North Dakota.

In Uruguay which legalised cannabis without a vote, public polls at the time only indicated 30-35 percent support for the reform, she said.

"These experiences show that garnering public support for such a controversial, complex and a divisive issue is difficult," Rychert said in a statement.

"Whatever the final result announced next week, the referendum has contributed to a more nuanced public debate about legal response to personal use of cannabis," she said.

Rychert said the debate on the personal use of cannabis has been mature and responsible, and she thinks the public has learned more about other ways of legislating and controlling cannabis.

Because of that, the campaign has not been a waste of time, she said.

She said the message of a tightly regulated market - much stricter than on alcohol - perhaps did not reach some of those who were in the 'No' bubble.

She said in the event of a 'no' result there could still be some changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act, although likely less dramatic ones than those proposed in the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.

There will be a lot of pressure, she said, to look more towards decriminalisation instead.

But Justice Minister Andrew Little told Checkpoint he felt that decriminalisation was a half-way stop that creates more problems than it solves.

"The Netherlands chief of police said they've had to turn to a blind eye to the criminal elements supplying the coffee shops where people can use legally."

"It creates a huge complex mess that we wouldn't want to replicate," he said.

Little said the electorate has spoken, and the Government has no other proposals for drug law reform this term.

He said voters have made a clear-cut decision, and the Government will respect that.

Little said he believed legalising cannabis was a step too far for people.

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