The final results have been released. (Photo by Lynn Grieveson - Newsroom/Newsroom via Getty Images)

The cannabis vote is a defeat for health and justice. And a victory for political spinelessness

Labour is presenting the preliminary results in the referendum on legalisation as an endorsement of the status quo. It is no such thing, writes Madeleine Holden.

Unless about two-thirds of special voters ticked “yes” in the cannabis referendum, the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill will not be introduced as legislation. Basically, at this point, it looks like we lost.

To put all my cards on the table, this is a result I was dreading. In the past few months, I’ve spent hours stomping around Ponsonby and Manurewa, delivering around 1,000 fliers into letterboxes in the hopes of tipping undecided voters toward voting Yes. I’ve written about the devastating effects of prohibition on the lives of ordinary New Zealanders, harangued loved ones to make sure that they’re enrolled to vote, and spammed on-the-fence acquaintances with reasons to legalise and encouraging information about the Canadian example

To my intense frustration, I found that the debate about legalisation tended to be framed as being about whether you were “pro-weed” or not – to vote “yes” was assumed to be an endorsement of the drug itself. But for me and everyone I campaigned with, this was an issue about health and justice. I was so invested in legalisation not because I have a lot of personal interest in using cannabis (any more – I tend to agree with Henry Oliver that, as I approach my mid-30s, weed has diminishing returns), but because it strikes me as senseless that people are losing their freedom and livelihoods for using a drug far less harmful than alcohol that 80% of the population has tried; that criminalisation places medicinal cannabis out of reach for people who desperately need it; and that we are continuing to beat the dead horse of treating cannabis use as a crime rather than a health issue, which is causing health and equity harms

I wished, along with many of my cohort, that the Labour government had the guts to legalise cannabis – that is, to institute progressive policy, as a progressive government – without putting the issue to referendum, but once the referendum was decided, I watched as Yes campaigners rolled up their sleeves. We threw ourselves into this opportunity to right the wrongs of prohibition. And with some anxiety, too – more than once, I heard the referendum described as a “once in a generation” chance to end prohibition, given the likelihood of Labour hiding behind a No result – “See? We have no mandate!” – and washing their hands of the issue. 

And it seems that’s exactly what’s happened. All but confirming that the incoming government will keep recreational cannabis use illegal, the justice minister, Andrew Little, said in a media statement that “we can be pretty sure that the electorate does not support the legalisation of recreational cannabis” and all but ruled out other drug law reform over the term to come. It’s a remarkable, and infuriating, conclusion to have drawn from the referendum result, this idea that the result represents some kind of collective thumbs up for the disastrous prohibition approach. After all, the result is on a knife-edge, and the more information people had about the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, the more likely they were to vote Yes – people are very persuadable on this issue, once they understand that legalisation is a better framework for dealing with drug harm than criminalisation. For Little to close the door on reform like this, and to ignore that this result indicates a strong appetite for change to the status quo among huge swathes of the electorate, is nothing short of political spinelessness.

But spinelessness is what we’ve come to expect from the current Labour government. Jacinda Ardern, who describes herself as “youth adjacent” and promised a government that “talk[s] directly to a new generation of voters”, was frustratingly coy on the question of how she voted in the cannabis referendum, refusing to reveal her Yes vote until the show was all over, despite being willing to admit earlier that she voted Yes in the End of Life Choice Act. She could have leveraged her considerable popularity and influence in explaining her reasons for voting Yes in the cannabis referendum, and it would have been perfectly appropriate to do so  – if she really believed it wasn’t, she would have stayed quiet about how she voted in both questions. Instead, her refusal to say how she voted was a wishy-washy, focus-grouped attempt to distance herself from an issue seen as a political hot potato. Now, as with capital gains tax, real, transformative, progressive policy has been put in the too-hard basket. 

For all her talk about empathy and kindness, Ardern has been frustratingly unwilling to get behind the legalisation of cannabis, an approach that reduces harm and treats the sick, the imprisoned and convicted, Māori and young people more empathetically. Which means, ultimately, that it’s over to us: to keep marching, to keep letterboxing, to keep talking with each other about alternatives to the failed experiment of prohibition, and to keep pressuring our government to institute the progressive reform that it keeps promising, and failing, to deliver. 




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