Why Did New Zealand’s Cannabis Referendum Fail?

12th November 2020

Last month, the residents of New Zealand were asked to take part in a historic political moment – the referendum on the legalisation of cannabis. New Zealanders have offered increasing support for cannabis reforms over recent years, with legalisation advocates looking to Canada and ongoing legalisation in the USA for inspiration for the cannabis bill.

However, polling day saw support fall short for cannabis legalisation in the country leading to a close defeat. So, why did the cannabis referendum fail?

On the 21st October, New Zealanders took to the polls, not only to choose (or in this case, keep) their government and Prime Minister but also to decide whether both euthanasia and cannabis should be legalised. Unlike the euthanasia referendum, the cannabis referendum was unbinding, meaning that the government did not have to accept the result of the vote.

Despite high-profile supporters for cannabis legalisation, such as former PM Helen Clarke, the cannabis bill was defeated in a breathtakingly close vote. After special votes were counted, it was revealed last week that 48.4% of voters were in favour of legalisation while 50.7% were against.

Some experts and politicians have offered their thoughts on why the cannabis referendum failed.

According to David Seymour, in an interview with New Zealand’s Breakfast news program, it was a “tactical mistake” to put the issue to a referendum.

“I think it was a tactical mistake to go for a referendum. The numbers weren’t there according to the public opinion research and the loss was foreseeable,

“I thought it did better than I expected actually, based on what the polling said and maybe that reflects that Chlöe [Swarbrick] ran a good campaign. I don’t know what was on the voters’ minds.”

David Seymour NZTV
David Seymour interviewed on TVNZ 1’s Breakfast show

Seymour revealed that he had supported the legalisation of cannabis in the referendum, however, voiced his opinion that a different approach should have been considered.

While the cannabis legalisation model implemented in Canada evidently played an important role in the proposed legislation, Seymour argued that more should have been done on this front.

“What we should have done, is actually send Royal commissioners to Canada, found out what the facts are – do more young people smoke? Find out how it works, being in the workplace and using cannabis; These are all questions that people have.”

Fiona Hutton, Associate Professor at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University, New Zealand, voiced her disappointment in the results of last month’s referendum. In her article, published in the Guardian, Hutton wrote:

“Perhaps it’s true that cannabis and other criminal justice related issues should never be decided in referendum – they are just too open to misinformation based on sensationalism, particularly in an era of fake news and clickbait headlines.”

Hutton – probably along with many others – believes that New Zealand’s cannabis referendum was a victory for “fear-mongering and misinformation about cannabis.”

Following the defeat of the cannabis bill, it is unlikely that the issue of legalisation will be raised again in New Zealand in the near future. Yet, the closeness of the vote may have some positive implications for drug reforms in the country, although the re-elected Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has revealed that these reforms will not extend to legalisation or decriminalisation.

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