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New Zealand: Referendum result: Cannabis legalisation abandoned by Government, Greens won't concede defeat
Thomas Manch and Joel Maxwell
Friday 30 Oct 2020
The preliminary results of the cannabis referendum, released on Friday, showed 53.1 per cent of voters said “no” to a question of whether the Government should legislate to legalise recreational cannabis. A majority voted "yes" for the End of Life Choice Act.
The Government will abandon the draft Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, with Justice Minister Andrew Little making clear that no further efforts to decriminalise the drug would come.
However, Green Party drug reform spokeswoman Chloe Swarbrick said “we need to wait for the special votes to be sure” the “no” vote had won.
The verdict appeared unlikely to change at the counting of some 480,000 special votes next week, as 69 per cent of these votes would need to be “yes” to flip the result.
The National Party celebrated the result as a victory for “common sense”.
M?ori MPs who had supported the legislation said it was a lost opportunity for their communities, who were more heavily penalised by cannabis laws and stood to gain from a legal market.
Little, speaking to reporters shortly after the results were announced, said it was a “pretty convincing” result for both referendums, that “means that it is highly unlikely that those results will be overturned”.
He said the Government would no longer progress decriminalisation efforts, as it had with changes to Misuse of Drugs Act in 2019, when the ability for police officers to use discretion in cases of drug possession was placed into law.
“The electorate has spoken, they are uncomfortable with greater legalisation, and I would interpret it as [also] decriminalisation of recreational cannabis,” Little said.
“The New Zealand electorate is not ready for that, and I think we have to respect that.”
Little confirmed he personally supported the legalisation of cannabis, and said he was satisfied the Government had conducted the referendum appropriately, with a suitable bill and clear information presented to the public.
“The problem with, kind of, a more pure decriminalisation is that it doesn’t remove one of the social harms, which is the criminal element which sits behind the supply of cannabis.”
Swarbrick was unwilling to firmly rule out the result changing at the special vote count.
“We need around 67 per cent of those specials to be skewed towards ‘yes’ ... I think it’s entirely plausible,” she said at a press conference in Auckland.
“I've always said this will come down to turnout.”
She said there was “more work to do to realise justice” within a system which penalised marginalised people for cannabis use. Decriminalisation without legalising cannabis would not resolve issues with the black market supply of the drug.
“There is a roadmap for how we can tackle those issues,” she said.
Swarbrick said the “yes” camp had run an evidence-based and compassionate campaign, up against a “tide of misinformation and some pretty poor-form campaigning from others”.
National drug reform spokesman Nick Smith said the result was “a victory for common sense”.
“Research shows cannabis causes mental health problems, reduced motivation and educational achievement, and increased road and workplace deaths,” he said in a statement.
“New Zealanders have rightly concluded that legalising recreational cannabis would normalise it, make it more available, increase its use and cause more harm.”
Labour MP for the M?ori electorate of T?maki Makaurau, Peeni Henare, said he voted “yes” and was disappointed there would be no changes to cannabis legislation.
The Associate Minister of Health said there would have been justice benefits for M?ori in particular with the proposed law change.
“I guess what’s become clear, after the fact, is people were still unsure about recreational use, and how that was governed or policed.”
In places like the East Coast of the North Island, famed for its primary industries, the “no” vote to cannabis was seen as a let-down for M?ori employment.
Labour MP for the M?ori electorate of Ikaroa-R?whiti, Meka Whaitiri said the result was a “lost opportunity” to create jobs for her electorate, covering Gisborne to Wainuiomata.
Whaitiri voted “yes” for justice reasons as well, she said.
“I think too many M?ori are being incarcerated for personal possession, and this Bill would have addressed that.”
In 2018 Hikurangi Enterprises, with greenhouses near Ruatoria, won the first licence to grow medicinal cannabis.
Whaitiri said businesses could still apply for licences, but now further job creation would likely be stifled.
It was still too early to say whether there might be any law changes from Labour covering cannabis in the new term, she said.
“It’s certainly something that I would speak in support of if given the opportunity.”
Greens list MP Elizabeth Kerekere, who stood in Ikaroa-R?whiti, said she would be “hugely disappointed” if the final result remained a “no” after specials.
“We need to set up good systems so that people can get mental health support, or any kind of addiction support... and also we shouldn’t be creating criminal records for people who just have casual personal use.”
Regardless of the outcome the Greens were committed to “actively co-operating with the Government on how this works, moving forward”.
Before the election, there was majority support in M?ori Television polls across all seven M?ori seats supporting a “yes” vote to legalising cannabis.
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