Jacinda Ardern's refusal to take sides 'may have been a decisive factor' in cannabis referendum - experts

The campaign to legalise cannabis last year might have failed because of Labour's "self-imposed neutrality", despite their voters being overwhelmingly in favour of change.

A new poll, conducted by UMR and backed by the pro-legalisation Helen Clark Foundation, found 81 percent of Labour supporters are in favour of legalisation or decriminalisation, behind only the Greens (93 percent).

Most National supporters also favour legalisation or decriminalisation - 52 percent - while ACT supporters were the least liberal of the four main parties the poll cited, split 51-49. 

The referendum, conducted alongside the general election in October, saw  48.4 percent voting in favour of the Government's Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, and 50.7 percent against.

"It came down to about 67,000 votes so it was very close," Helen Clark Foundation executive director Kathy Errington told The AM Show on Tuesday. 

"Any number of things could have swung it. It's very hard to campaign in favour of something that is illegal because it is very hard for people to come out and say that they're doing it, and that they like to do it and they don't want to stop. 

"There's a whole lot of reasons that campaign was very, very tricky. Nonetheless it is what it is - the result is there and we did reject that proposed legal framework." 

In an article for medical journal Drug and Alcohol Review, two Massey University doctors say Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's refusal to publicly back the 'yes' campaign "may have been a decisive factor in the narrow defeat". After the result was announced at the end of October, Ardern revealed what many had suspected all along - she voted in favour of legalisation.

In Labour's absence, the Green Party picked up the slack - which Marta Rychert and Chris Wilkins suggest might have backfired. 

"Conservative voters... may have also been alienated by the political leadership of the campaign by a young Green Party MP, Chlöe Swarbrick (largely filling the gap left by the neutral position of the centre-left governing Labour Party). 

"This Green Party leadership may have cast the issue as 'far left-wing' and 'youth' orientated in the conservative public's mind and, given the Green Party’s previous advocacy for cannabis use and reform (they had New Zealand's first Rastafarian MP), even created the perception that the aim of the CLCB was to promote cannabis use."

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

Sarah Helm of the Drug Foundation says despite voting down legalisation, the poll clearly shows most Kiwis don't want cannabis use to be a criminal offence.

"The evidence shows that convictions do absolutely nothing to deter use, and despite this we continue to see thousands of New Zealanders convicted of low-level cannabis offences. While we're focusing on this punitive approach, we're failing to really do anything useful to address cannabis harm in New Zealand." 

Errington said despite new laws in 2019 being passed which give police more discretion over when to prosecute cases of drug possession, it's not working. Statistics from the  National Drug Intelligence Bureau featured in the Drug Foundation's 2020 State of the Nation report, released in December, show charges and convictions in the 10 months following the law change only dropped slightly, but overall proceedings went up, with more warnings being issued. 

Kathy Errington.
Kathy Errington. Photo credit: The AM Show

And the percentage of Maori being singled out remained the same - just under 40 percent, despite usage rates similar to people of other ethnicities. 

"What we're left with is all the problems that the 'yes' campaign really raised in the public debate - the fact our current laws drive people towards more dangerous drugs like synthetic cannabis, the fact it's very unfair to Maori," said Errington. "All those problems are still there - we haven't fixed them... Cannabis use is very widespread in New Zealand. You shouldn't have nearly 40 percent of the charges being against Maori."

Errington said it's clear the country is ready for change, even if the Government isn't. 

"While the 'yes' campaign lost a battle, they are overall winning the war in terms of moving away from an approach that tries to punish people out of using cannabis." 

Minister of Justice Kris Faafoi told Newshub the Government "respects the decision of last year's referendum, which rejected legalisation of cannabis".

"The Government is committed to a health-based approach to minimising drug harm.

"Possible decriminalisation of cannabis is not on the justice portfolio list of priorities and is not a priority for the Government, which is focused on New Zealand's COVID recovery, fixing housing, and addressing child poverty and climate change."