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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONSocietySeptember 1, 2020

How to convince your grumpy uncle to vote yes in the cannabis referendum

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Some people seem like they’ll never be persuaded, but don’t give up. Here are some effective strategies for convincing the sceptics in your life. 

The cannabis referendum is likely to be a nail-biter, with polls and campaigners predicting a very close vote.

With the election approaching, cannabis campaigners are working to get the word out that much of the most important campaigning in a referendum needs to happen on the micro level in the form of human conversations initiated by yesvoters, both in person and online.

Personal conversations are a surprisingly effective campaign tool, according to research. The research is clear that the more a person hears about whats in the Cannabis Control Bill, the more likely they are to vote yes to legalisation,says Kali Mercier, policy and advocacy manager at the New Zealand Drug Foundation. Conversations are a really important campaigning tool in the Irish abortion referendum, 39% of voters thought discussions with family, friends or workmates were the most influential factor in the final outcome. To win the referendum, we need everyone to jump on board and start having conversations with their friends, family and workmates.

Getting young voters to enrol is also a high priority for conversations. Young people are a crucial demographic when it comes to voting on cannabis. According to one poll, New Zealanders under age 30 are almost twice as likely to vote “yes” compared to those over 65 but the under-30s are also by far the least-enrolled group of voters.

In the lead-up to October’s cannabis referendum, social media campaigns from Make It Legal, Health Not Handcuffs, the Drug Foundation and others are encouraging supporters to talk with family members to make sure they understand the issues.

But what makes a convincing conversation? Can you actually say something that might prompt your sceptical relatives to vote yes to legalising cannabis?

Theres definitely an art to building a friendly and inquisitive conversation rather than trying to score points or beating someone over the head with arguments. Some key tips from the Health Not Handcuffs #timetotalkcannabis campaign, supported by psychological research, include: 

Ask questions. Rather than just stating your stance, respect the person youre talking with and try to understand where theyre coming from.

Focus on shared values. If someone is concerned about youth accessing cannabis, coming at them with a libertarian line like but we all have a right to choose what we put in our bodiesis not going to help! Instead, connect with their values, validate their concerns and help them understand that you share the same values. For example: I share your concern about kids using too much too early. But kids are not going to access more cannabis through this referendum, and a controlled market is going to make things safer for everyone…” (More on these points below.)

Share your own experience. Maybe your grumpy uncle has never even tried cannabis. Maybe he needs to hear more about the problems youve observed with the illegal cannabis market, and how regulation would solve these. People feel hopeful and more inspired to vote yes when they hear about solutions to existing problems.

Focus on the most effective talking points. Polling by the Drug Foundation has identified a handful of key points that work best with persuadable voters:

  • Public health programmes will benefit. Regulating cannabis is expected to generate up to $490 million in tax per year. This will include a specific levy that will fund cannabis education and drug treatment programme.
  • Prohibition of cannabis isnt working; use is widespread anyway. Police spend almost $200 million and over 330,000 hours on cannabis enforcement each year. Whats the point of doing this over a plant that the majority of adult New Zealanders have tried? Legalising and regulating cannabis will free up police to focus on more serious crime.
  • The referendum will improve medicinal cannabis access. Although medicinal cannabis is now legal in New Zealand, products are exorbitantly expensive and still out of reach for most patients. Because of this, medicinal users are calling for a yes vote in the referendum.
  • The legal market will be tightly controlled for safety. The proposed legislation is called the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill for a reason. It’s actually quite a conservative law. Legal cannabis will be tested for potency and additives, kept at a moderate potency, and only sold at licensed premises. No advertising will be allowed. Cannabis will be controlled more tightly than alcohol and tobacco – even though alcohol and tobacco are both more dangerous, according to public health research.
  • It can also be helpful to go into cannabis conversations knowing what objections you’re likely to meet, and knowing how to answer them. According to campaigners, here are some of the most common concerns around legalisation, and ways to respond to them:

I’m worried about youth use increasing.

Overseas experience has shown that legalising cannabis for adults does not cause an increase in youth use. In Canada and the US states that have legalised, youth use of cannabis has not grown. This makes sense; youth cannot buy cannabis from licensed outlets. In New Zealand, the minimum age to purchase cannabis will be 20.

I’m worried about normalising cannabis and increasing its use.

Cannabis use is already pretty normal in New Zealand!

Nearly half of all adult New Zealanders have tried cannabis at some time in their lives, and 590,000 use cannabis regularly,says Kali Mercier. Our current law doesnt stop people using cannabis. Right now, people who use cannabis get it from the black market, outside of any government control. This is not about creating a new market its about putting controls around an existing one.

Amazingly, legalisation has not led to any real rise in cannabis use in Canada and the US.

I’m worried that cannabis will be everywhere!

Cannabis will be sold only at specific licensed premises with no publicity, and not at general shops or dairies. It will still be illegal to use cannabis in public. 

I’m worried about the effects of cannabis on mental health.

Its true that cannabis can cause mental health problems in a small percentage of users. But even the researchers who have documented this in New Zealand are encouraging a yes vote in the referendum, because prohibition doesnt deter use. When cannabis use is a crime, users are afraid to get help. When its legal, there will be less stigma around getting help and remember, revenues from cannabis taxes will go toward health education and treatment programmes.

Shouldn’t we just decriminalise rather than legalise?

Decriminalising cannabis would mean keeping it illegal, but not giving people criminal convictions for using it. This would leave supply in the hands of the black market. A regulated market is actually safer, resulting in a quality-tested product and tax revenues going towards public health.

Read our full cannabis referendum explainer here

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