A proposal to legalise recreational marijuana in New Zealand has been rejected by voters in a national referendum, dealing a major blow to any hopes of ending prohibition in the immediate future. Polls conducted in the build-up to the ballot – which was held concurrently with the general election – suggested that it was always going to be a close call, and so it proved with 48.4 percent voting in favour of the proposed bill and 50.7 percent voting against it.
The narrow margin of defeat does however show that support for legalisation is on the rise in New Zealand, and this is only likely to continue as other countries around the world adopt more sensible cannabis policies. Unfortunately, though, the green wave looks like it is going to take a little longer to finally reach Aotearoa.
Many of those who had been pushing for reform have come out in criticism of the government and prime minister Jacinda Ardern for not backing the bill firmly enough in the weeks and months leading up to the referendum. The proposal was drawn up by the governing Labour Party, yet Ardern never publicly endorsed it and refused to confirm whether or not she would vote in favour of the proposal.
In truth, the Labour Party never would have introduced the initiative had it not been for the insistence of the Green Party, which demanded a referendum on the matter in exchange for entering into a coalition government following the previous general election in 2016. This time around, though, Labour won by a landslide and therefore has the majority it needs to govern alone, which means there’s now no major faction pushing for cannabis reform within the government.
Following the announcement of the disappointing outcome, Ardern stated that there will be “no attempt by Labour to legalise or decriminalise cannabis in the light of the referendum result”. In other words, the government has no plans to put an end to the unnecessary harms associated with prohibition, and the impact this has on communities across New Zealand.
For instance, as has been widely publicised in the lead-up to the referendum, there is a significant racial disparity in marijuana-related arrests, with people of Māori heritage being three times more likely to face prosecution than European New Zealanders. On top of this, keeping cannabis illegal means that problematic users cannot receive the help they need, but are instead criminalised and stigmatised for their vulnerability.
A recent report into the impact of New Zealand’s cannabis policy found that “there is currently no or very minimal resource for treatment of cannabis-related harms, especially for young people”, and that “spending on enforcement currently outweighs spending on harm reduction”[i]. Sadly, this looks set to continue, for the time being at least.
In spite of all this, marijuana use continues to rise in New Zealand, with one study indicating that 76.7 percent of New Zealanders try cannabis by the time they are 25[ii]. Clearly, then, attempts to eradicate the plant and its derivatives have not worked, which is why it makes sense to legalise in order to harness the benefits and control the harms that are associated with its use. The defeated bill would have allowed licensed stores to sell cannabis to people over the age of 20, with the government regulating every area of the supply chain in order to ensure that the products sold are of a certain quality. With support for this more reasonable approach growing rapidly, change appears to be inevitable, although sadly it will have to wait a little longer.
[ii] Boden JM, Fergusson DM, John Horwood L. Illicit drug use and dependence in a New Zealand birth cohort. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 2006 Feb;40(2):156-63. – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16476134/