Cannabis referendum: Legalisation will be 'very tight', 'vote no' campaigns casting 'fear, doubt' - Swarbrick

Campaigns advocating against the legalisation of recreational cannabis are casting "fear and doubt" on the referendum, says Green Party list MP Chlöe Swarbrick, with 'vote no' crusades encouraging Kiwis to conflate pro-legalisation with supporting cannabis use.

In the upcoming election, New Zealanders will be asked whether or not they support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill. Voting yes or no indicates whether or not the individual supports the legalisation of recreational cannabis.  

Speaking to Magic Talk's Road to the Election on Sunday, the Auckland Central candidate was asked as to why the 'vote yes' movement appeared to be losing momentum. A recent poll revealed just 35 percent of participants planned to vote in favour of the bill, compared to 53 percent who said they will vote no.

Swarbrick, who also serves as the Green Party drug law reform spokesperson, said the plethora of polls demonstrating different levels of support for the proposed legislation had offered contradictory information about the referendum, leading to confusion among New Zealanders.

However, she noted the general trend across the polls indicates the results of the referendum will be "very tight".

"I think the important thing is how this question is phrased and put to people," she told host Mitch McCann. 

"Basically [polling trends suggest] this is going to be very tight - it's on a knife-edge. I think what it says is there still is a huge amount of confusion, which is largely being spurred by a '[vote] no' campaign seeking to cast fear and doubt, to basically try to tell people that to vote yes to implement a sensible, mature, adult framework - to reduce harm, to increase community wellbeing, to ensure our kids are not using this substance -  is conflated with the idea of whether you support cannabis or not."

Swarbrick said it's imperative that Kiwis do not confuse the referendum with their own personal sentiment towards the use of cannabis. 

"I think it's really important that Kiwis understand that this referendum is not about whether you like, support or use cannabis - this referendum is about the kind of frameworks that we want in response to a substance that 80 percent of the population will use in their lifetime - and that 11 percent of the population uses on a regular basis," she said.

She also argued that $300 million in police funding towards enforcing the prohibition of cannabis could be better spent elsewhere.

"That's what the legalisation debate is about, but it ends up being caught up in some pretty, to be honest with you, misleading frames of arguments, particularly from the Opposition."

Swarbrick. Photo credit: Getty

While non-binding, the incumbent Government is expected to legalise recreational use of cannabis if reelected and the vote passes. National has said it may shelve the bill if the select committee advises against passing it.

The proposed bill outlines a way for the Government to control and regulate cannabis, covering how Kiwis can produce, supply or consume marijuana. Its main purpose is to reduce cannabis-related harm to individuals, families, whānau and communities.

The bill intends to restrict young people's access to cannabis, eliminate the illegal supply of cannabis and ensure only New Zealanders aged 20 and over are able to possess or consume the drug in limited circumstances. It would also control the production and supply of cannabis, including controlling the potency and contents of licensed cannabis and cannabis products.

Earlier this month, a poll commissioned by medicinal cannabis company Helius Therapeutics and conducted by Horizon Research found the race is neck-and-neck, with 49.5 percent for and 49.5 percent against. In March, a Research New Zealand poll found 43 percent were in favour of legalising cannabis and 33 percent opposed it -  yet by August, support for the law change had slid to 39 percent, while opposition to its legalisation has surged to 46 percent.

Swarbrick, who is contesting the Auckland Central electorate seat against the likes of NZ First MP Jenny Marcroft and Labour candidate Helen White, is one of the most prominent voices in New Zealand's legal weed debate and a driving force behind the 'yes' campaign.