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SocietyDecember 12, 2018

Legalise (almost all of) it: What Spinoff readers reckon about drugs

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The Spinoff partnered with UMR to survey the attitudes of our readers, and the nation as a whole. Today, what do we reckon about drug reform? And what lessons can politicians take from the answers? 

If you’re reading this right now, there’s a reasonable chance you’re either high, or reckon people should be able to get high.

That’s one of the findings of our research survey with UMR, which looked at both the attitudes of our readers, and the attitudes of the country at large. And one of the questions we asked was around attitudes to specific drugs. And while we weren’t overly surprised to find that our readers tend to have much more permissive attitudes towards drugs, the scale of some of those differences surprised us.

Here’s the data we’re working with:

One of the most eye-popping numbers there is around Ecstasy/MDMA. Almost half of The Spinoff’s readership thinks it should be legal, or legal with restrictions. Almost a third say the same about cocaine. Well over half say the same about herbal highs. Opinion is nigh-on unanimous for marijuana and alcohol. There’s even some support for legal-with-restrictions for methamphetamine and synthetics, two drugs that have caused immense harm, and been demonised as a result.

But nationwide, opinion is hardly unanimous on the way our drug policy currently works (most of these substances are currently illegal, in case you forgot.) Except on the question of cannabis, there’s general support for currently illegal stuff to stay illegal, at varying degrees in the low numbers.

So what do these numbers indicate? Two news events give a guide as to how these numbers could become part of the mix in shaping policy.

First of all, there’s going to be a referendum on cannabis legalisation at or before the 2020 general election. The precise way this process will work is unclear – in particular whether a bill will be passed by parliament and then put up for referendum, or whether there will be a general vote on whether cannabis should be legalised, and then it’s up to Parliament to interpret that result into a new law.

The nationwide numbers here suggest a similar trend on a question asked recently by the Drug Foundation, on whether cannabis laws should be changed. In their poll, legalisation won the highest share of support, over decriminalisation and maintaining the legal status quo. Overall though, two thirds of people supported changing the law in their survey, and just under two thirds of people supported changing the law in ours.

So what does that mean for the reeferendum? Two notes of caution for supporters of legalisation: Firstly, there’s no telling how hard or soft this support is, and it’s entirely likely that for many who generally support law reform, it’s not a burning issue that they’re going to go out of their way to vote on. And secondly, a lot depends on how exactly the question, or the law the question is based on, gets written.

A classic example of this is the way that the referendum on the repeal of section 59 of the Crimes Act was framed. You might remember it better as the anti-smacking law. As the phrase “as part of good parental correction” was included, it made it almost impossible not to vote in support, but also legally nigh-on impossible to implement into law. And so we ended with a referendum with an overwhelming margin, that was still completely ignored.

What it doesn’t show support for, however, is the Portugal-style complete decriminalisation of all drugs. The nature of our drug debates tend to revolve around specific substances, rather than drugs as an issue in and of itself. Witness, for example, the member’s bill being put forward by National MP Simeon Brown to increase prison sentences specifically on synthetic cannabis dealers.

So even though that sort of model comes recommended by many, including for example the recent Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction, it is far less likely that there will be actual movement in that direction, because of the strong public opposition. But based on these numbers, politicians will known that they will get plenty of support from moves like cannabis reform, and are arguably even falling behind on public opinion.


Data! Opinions! The results of The Spinoff’s major national survey with UMR

Shock news: The Spinoff’s readers are extremely online

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