Could special votes change the cannabis referendum?

New Zealand has voted against legalising cannabis with 53.1 percent of the country voting down the bill - but with more than 400,000 votes still to be counted, some are holding out hope for a change of heart. 

The preliminary referendum results released on Friday show just 46.1 percent voted yes - 12 percent behind the no votes.

But with special votes still being counted, it's possible this margin could close. 

Special votes are votes not taken at a voting place, or printed on the electoral roll.

They include overseas votes, posted-in votes, prisoner votes and people in managed isolation facilities. They could also include people who are hospitalised or too ill to make it to the polls.

There are approximately 48,500 of these still trickling in - 17 percent of the vote. But Minister of Justice Andrew Little told Newshub the chances of swaying the results are slim.

"The margins in the referendum results are such that it is highly unlikely that the results will be overturned on the specials," Little said.

"It would need roughly 70 percent of the special votes to be in favour (of legalisation), which is highly unlikely."

Not everyone is disillusioned, however - the Green Party's drug law reform spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick says it's "really close".

"We need to wait for the specials to be sure of the result," Swarbrick said in a statement. 

"We have said from the outset that this would always come down to voter turnout. We've had record numbers of special votes, so I remain optimistic."

Pro-cannabis campaign group Make It Legal is remaining hopeful too - the group's spokesperson Sandra Murray says special votes usually swing progressive.

"We are very hopeful that we will pick up the difference when the final count is in," she said.

"Whatever the final result we want to thank New Zealand for turning out in such huge numbers to support change."

The final referendum results will be released on November 6.