Chlöe Swarbrick speaks on election night 2020 (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Chlöe Swarbrick speaks on election night 2020 (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

PoliticsNovember 13, 2020

Five reasons the cannabis referendum ‘yes’ campaign floundered

Chlöe Swarbrick speaks on election night 2020 (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Chlöe Swarbrick speaks on election night 2020 (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The Greens won a sizeable share of the party vote, and Chlöe Swarbrick took Auckland Central. But the cannabis referendum campaign she championed, as captured in Three Ticks Chlöe, failed. For all the glorious victory, the final note is one of frustration, writes Justin Giovannetti.

Three Ticks Chlöe is part of Frame, a series of short documentaries produced by Wrestler for The Spinoff.

Spoilers: Swarbrick pulls off a coup in Auckland Central, winning the electorate despite all polls showing her in third place. She edges out Labour’s Helen White. The victory ends up being unnecessary in the end for the Greens as they win a sizeable share of the party vote and return 10 MPs to Parliament.

For all the cheering and grins on election night, the Greens are now minor players to a Labour majority. Jacinda Ardern has ruled out the core of the Green promise to the electorate. There won’t be a tax on wealth, there won’t be drug reform, and far from a guaranteed income, there won’t be any benefit hikes. But for a moment, the Green faithful can close their eyes and pretend.

The documentary isn’t really about Auckland Central. Anyone following Swarbrick during the election would have been struck by her passion for getting the cannabis referendum through. That’s where her heart and hope was at the time. More spoilers: as a viewer, you know her call for a third tick in favour of cannabis ends in defeat.

In late September, The Spinoff sat down with Swarbrick and spoke with the then candidate about cannabis. Here are five reasons that New Zealand’s cannabis campaign floundered.

The campaign for it was lacklustre

The result was close after the special votes were counted. 1,406,973 New Zealanders cast ballots to legalise cannabis and bring it under government control. 1,474,635 didn’t – that’s 50.7% who voted no.

Part of the referendum’s failure falls on the people who advocated for it. The campaign was cerebral, balanced and cautious. The NZ Drug Foundation’s rousing call to voters was: “Together, let’s change our cannabis laws for the better.” Television commercials showcased placid conversation about making the change “on our terms”. It was about as exciting as buying a mattress.

There were few public champions

In the midst of an extra-long election campaign where Labour leader Jacinda Ardern was asking people to vote a very specific way every day, she drew the line at cannabis: two ticks Labour, yes on end-of-life, don’t talk about cannabis. After the results came out, her office said in a text to the press gallery that the PM had voted yes.

The National Party came out swinging against cannabis. The caucus was unified in their opposition to a drug that most of them have admitted to trying. Labour was silent. Swarbrick ended up being one of the only voices in favour, joined late in the campaign by former prime minister Helen Clark.

One thing conspicuously absent from the cannabis debate was the Green Party. It was in favour of passage, but it largely kept quiet. That wasn’t an accident.

Speaking with The Spinoff, as part of an interview that isn’t in the documentary, Swarbrick said the Greens had decided not to campaign on cannabis out of fear that it would become seen as a Green fringe issue. The hope was that it wouldn’t be partisan as a result. That didn’t happen.

“I’ve been really cautious, and have probably relaxed a little bit, because there hasn’t been the same stepping up from other politicians that I’d hoped for. I had hoped that as soon as we had released that draft bill that it would stop being such a partisan football, but it has become more intensely partisan since then,” she said.

In the documentary, you see her clashing with National MPs. Swarbrick says the debates became frustrating as her opponents, in effect, argued that cannabis shouldn’t exist. It’s here, she’d argue back, we’re here to talk about how to control it.

Emotion won the day

Where the campaign in favour of cannabis was careful and cautious, the campaign against it was not. As reported by The Spinoff’s Jihee Junn, multiple Facebook ads posted by the Say Nope to Dope campaign were pulled down by the social media giant for containing falsehoods.

The group ran ads, online and in the print, that stated that cannabis would be sold in dairies alongside blue top to kids. Other ads showed automobile accidents with skewed statistics and dodgy characters in back alleys lighting up joints. Cannabis, they made very clear, is dangerous stuff.

“There’s also an appeal to obfuscation, emotion and a casting of doubt. It’s become mired in an absolute mess that has become conflated with whether or not you like cannabis, rather than a legal framework to address it,” Swarbrick told The Spinoff.

“To tick yes is to deal with a reality that is messy, complex and nuanced. I wonder if we’d inserted a clause that says ‘This isn’t morally endorsed, but we accept it happens.’ If that’s all it takes for some voters to feel they aren’t tainted by it, maybe we should have done that.” It may have been clear to her at that point of the campaign, after weeks of debates and radio shows, that some in the public were deeply uncomfortable with cannabis.

The money never showed up

One aspect of New Zealand’s referendum that never appeared was a corporate push. When cannabis was legalised in Canada, and during a number of votes across the US on the issue, one of the main arguments for cannabis boiled down to money. Cannabis companies became stock market darlings, promising jobs in struggling rustbelt towns, big wins for investors and a boost for the tax man.

That appeal to small business owners and investors never happened here.

‘Won’t anybody think of the children?’

In the week before election day, the New Zealand Medical Association changed its stance on the cannabis referendum. For months the association had told the country that doctors were solidly against legalising the drug because of its health and social harms. You listen to your doctor, don’t you?

Responding to a backlash from doctors who said they never were consulted on that position, the association pulled a u-turn just before election day. Hundreds of thousands of ballots were already cast – the damage was done.

The medical association wasn’t the only group to use its position of authority to counsel people about the dangers of cannabis. School principals across the country took the opportunity to warn parents that legal cannabis would destroy the minds of the next generation.

John Paul College in Rotorua, King’s High School in Dunedin, St Joseph’s in Taranaki and St Paul’s College on Ponsonby all criticised the referendum in public and letters to parents. Some put up billboards warning against legalisation.

Hours before election day,  the headmaster of Mount Albert Grammar School wanted the last word. In a letter to parents, Patrick Drumm warned that a powerless government would lose control of cannabis if it was legalised. “It can never be okay for a young person to get ‘stoned’, ‘wasted’ or ‘high.’ And the impact on learning? … It’s not called ‘dope’ for nothing!” he wrote.

Frame is a series of short, standalone documentaries produced by Wrestler for The Spinoff. Watch more here.

Made with support from NZ On Air.

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