Cannabis: Drug policy experts look for silver linings in referendum defeat

Drug policy experts are looking for silver linings in the apparently unsuccessful bid to have cannabis legalised.

Friday's preliminary referendum results suggest those in favour of continued prohibition have won, 53 percent to 46. There are a few hundred thousand special votes to be counted, and they'll need to lean between 68 and 70 in favour if the legalisation camp is to win. 

Jacinda Ardern waited until after the result was announced to confirm she voted 'yes', frustrating supporters. Helen Clark Foundation Executive Director Kathy Errington says her backing would have been a huge help.

"Her intervention during the campaign would have been very powerful."

But that even the Prime Minister wants change shows "the status quo isn't sustainable", Errington told Newshub. 

"Even 30 years ago this level of support for legalisation would have been unimaginable. Back in the early days of the Green Party they told Nándor [Tánczos, New Zealand's first Rastafarian MP] to tone down his rhetoric on cannabis legalisation so the party could expand its base. We are in a very different situation now."

Over the past few years police have been instructed to dial back the prosecutions for cannabis use, but that's had little effect - thousands every year are still being charged for possession or use alone, with Māori far more likely to be targeted. 

This led to some pro-cannabis advocates saying continued prohibition is racist. 

But Matthew Tukaki from the Māori Council is pleased with the result, saying there are other issues that need tackling first.

"We still haven't addressed the burgeoning problem of alcohol abuse and all these other things in our communities."

And Ōtara-Papatoetoe Local Board chair Lotu Fuli says it would have a negative impact on the area.

"It's so difficult to regulate something like that - we've had that experience with alcohol. Our community was really not in favour." 

But Tukaki still expects police to ease up on the arrests, considering the level of support for legalisation. 

"We are not your quota for arrests and charges and you have right now the discretion when it comes to cannabis - use it... The failure [of the referendum] was an overwhelming response to the concerns many had, but I would also strongly recommend to supporters of the 'yes' side to focus their energy on continued reform." 

Errington believes many who voted 'no' would have voted 'yes' for something in between, such as decriminalisation. 

"A huge group of New Zealanders - the majority - don't like the way the law is working now and want to change it. The conversation now needs to be, well, what are we going to do? Because this isn't working." 

Massey University drug researcher Chris Wilkins, who said our proposed legislation was much better than that in the US and would be a lucrative source of tax revenue - said the referendum's failure reflected concerns around whether the proposed legislation would have achieved its goals, such as restricting youth access and limiting social costs.

"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. 

"This evidence could more definitively address many of the outstanding questions that have been raised in the public debate over recent months."

Chris Wilkins.
Chris Wilkins. Photo credit: The AM Show

When Uruguay legalised cannabis, polls showed only about a third of people were in favour - that's risen in the years since.

"These experiences show that garnering public support for such a controversial, complex and a divisive issue is difficult," said another Massey drug researcher, Marta Rychert.

"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. Hopefully, it has also increased the public's understanding of harms and opportunities presented by different policy options.

"In the event of 'no' result confirmed next week, we may well see some changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act, although likely less dramatic than the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill. It's likely that de jure decriminalisation of cannabis possession will be on the table, as that option was favoured even by some stakeholders who campaigned against the referendum Bill. 

"Meantime, New Zealand will buy time to learn from experiences and evaluations of legal cannabis regimes being implemented overseas, as we are likely to continue to witness other countries reforming their cannabis laws."