It is believed to be the first country in the world to put the legalisation of recreational cannabis to a national public vote. But amid a pandemic, an election concentrated almost entirely on the Covid-19 crisis, and a simultaneous vote on euthanasia, New Zealand’s upcoming marijuana referendum has not captivated the mainstream public attention that it might have in an ordinary year.
New Zealand would join Canada and Uruguay on the list of countries legalising the sale and use of cannabis for adults if more than half of voters approved it – but public backing for the measure has eroded in polling during 2020, reversing growing support in recent years. In a debate plagued by claims of misinformation from both sides – and taking place during an overcrowded election cycle – some politicians have shied away from the matter altogether, fearing they will end up on the wrong side of a divisive topic.
The proposed law would legalise cannabis for people older than 20 – regulating how it is grown, used and sold – and the referendum question is non-binding; a “yes” vote means the next Parliament would have a mandate to pass it. This month, 35% of 1,000 people surveyed said they would support the proposed law according to a 1 News Colmar Brunton poll, down from 40% in June this year and 43% in November 2019.
Those opposing the measure rose to 53% in September. Another survey of 1,300 people, conducted by Horizon Research and commissioned by a medicinal cannabis firm, showed 49.5% of those polled supported the law and 49.5% opposed it.
People would be allowed to buy 14g a day of cannabis under the proposed law, and grow two plants. The bill includes advertising restrictions and a cap on how much of the market one company could dominate.
Some politicians have avoided sharing their views – among them Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister and centre-left Labour party leader, who will not say how she plans to vote, but on Wednesday night did admit to having smoked marijuana in the past. The matter “has been designed for the public to decide”, she has said, although some of her senior MPs have supported the law. Judith Collins, the leader of the centre-right National, the main opposition group, has said her entire party would oppose the measure. The left-leaning Greens support it.
For Ardern it made sense to avoid being ensnared in a measure that might fail, analysts said: she is riding high in the polls, her party is close to the threshold to govern alone and holds some of the highest approval numbers ever seen by a New Zealand leader.
‘A slippery slope’
Andrew Geddis, a public law professor at the University of Otago, said that unlike assisted dying – the other referendum question on 17 October – the legalisation of cannabis had never enjoyed clear majority support in New Zealand.