Photos: Getty Images
Photos: Getty Images

PoliticsNovember 12, 2020

As NZ said no to cannabis, Americans voted in sweeping drug law reform

Photos: Getty Images
Photos: Getty Images

Soon after the proposed cannabis bill failed to gain majority support at referendum here, several conservative US states voted to legalise cannabis and decriminalise other drugs. So why is our supposedly progressive nation afraid of drug law reform? 

Americans may have been divided on a preferred president, but they were far more united in their support for drug law reform. Last week, just as it was confirmed New Zealand’s cannabis law reform referendum had narrowly failed, many US states legalised cannabis and decriminalised a whole range of hard drugs. In fact, every state where cannabis legalisation or illegal drug decriminalisation was proposed, it passed, showing overwhelming support for progressive drug reform.

Oregon became the first US state to decriminalise all illegal drugs, while the citizens of Washington, D.C., voted to decriminalise psilocybin, the organic compound active in psychedelic mushrooms. New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Arizona legalised recreational cannabis, bringing the number of states that have done so to 15. Aside from New Jersey, these states usually lean conservative, so it may come as a surprise to see them ahead of Aotearoa in progressive cannabis reform. 

“There’s certainly a streak of caution in New Zealand,” says Kathy Errington from the Helen Clark Foundation, which campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum, when asked for her thoughts on why it failed. 

A poster promoting a ‘yes’ vote in the cannabis referendum in Hamilton in October (Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Newsroom via Getty Images)

Public support for cannabis legalisation in the US, however, had been steadily growing since the 1990s, according to a 2018 report from the Pew Research Centre. The recession and civil unrest of 2020 only boosted the cause, as both issues neatly align with two main incentives for legalisation: legal cannabis has the potential to bring financial benefits, and cannabis reform will improve social justice.

For Covid-hit economies the world over, the cannabis industry’s potential economic gain is more relevant than ever, and the issue is felt particularly keenly in the US, which entered recession in February. But in New Zealand’s “yes”campaign, the financial incentives were not pushed nearly as much as they were in the US, says Massey University drug policy researcher Marta Rychert.

“In the US the emphasis has been on the economic arguments; on creation of jobs, taxes, that we’re going to improve the economy. That has been principally the main argument in the US, which worked for them.”

Even if those potential benefits had been pushed harder in New Zealand, Rychert doesn’t believe it would have been as effective here as in the US, as we’re less focused on financial benefits. “I don’t think the economic argument would really work with the New Zealand public, because we’re a different country – even our response to coronavirus has been more focused on our communities and social justice and so on.”

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The economic focus doesn’t mean social and racial justice didn’t also play a big part in the US referendums, particularly in Oregon, which voted to decriminalise all illegal drugs. Since President Nixon declared war on drugs in 1971, and Reagan upped the ante in the 1980s, imposing increasingly draconian penalties for drug use, the disproportionate impact on the Black and Latino communities has been marked. A report from August this year showed racial disparities in drug arrests would drop by 95% if Oregon voted yes. 

The global 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, which the New York Times described as potentially the biggest movement in US history, successfully shone a light on American and international racial inequality. This gave context to the drug debate and helped many American voters to see the existing criminalised drug laws in relation to systemic racism. 

But Rychert says social reform is a more complicated and contestable argument than the relatively straightforward economic benefits. Some New Zealand voters in particular were unsure that legalisation (or decriminalisation) would actually help minority communities, she says. 

“The public may have had some kind of reservations: is it really going to ensure the wellbeing of communities? How are we going to make sure Māori actually benefit from this reform? [But] there were a number of provisions in the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill to cover that.”

Rychert says legalising cannabis to achieve social justice is complicated, because the country or state must also address surrounding social issues, such as housing and reducing unemployment. Portugal, for example, decriminalised drugs in the year 2000, and has spent 20 years proving it can be successful by ensuring the law is supplemented with wider social justice reform, she says. 

Portugal’s policy offers users “an opportunity to receive help in terms of their health and potential addiction, if there is any – because not all drug use is associated with problems”. She says Oregon must follow Portugal in treating drug use as a health issue. “It’s a good policy.”

But the the success of a progressive drug policy like those in Oregon and Portugal depends on how the law is implemented, adds Rychert. If New Zealand ever reaches the point of considering decriminalising hard drugs, it would have to address this too.

Errington says drug reform policies must be coupled with better addiction treatment systems and law-enforcement training on how to police legal or decriminalised substances, rather than focusing on possession arrests.

“You’ve got to do a whole bunch of things differently to have a progressive drug policy. Just legalisation isn’t enough… it’s something that a significant part of the population is doing regularly, so straight banning that thing is a recipe for disaster.

“You want some controls around that substance once you legalise it, so you’re not just throwing it open.”

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