New Zealanders aren't just voting on Jacinda Ardern. Legal cannabis and the right to die are also on the ballot – ABC News

New Zealanders are voting today on whether to give Jacinda Ardern another term as the country’s Prime Minister.

But that’s not all they’ll be casting their ballots on.

They’re also being asked to weigh in on two referendums that could potentially turn New Zealand into one of the most progressive nations on earth.

Here’s what we know about it.

What are they voting on?

The first question New Zealanders will be asked is whether recreational use of cannabis should become legal.

The second referendum will ask the public whether people with a terminal illness should be given the right to end their lives.

Could weed be legal right after the vote?

Nope. If more than 50 per cent of New Zealanders vote yes, recreational cannabis wouldn’t become legal straight away.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
Ms Ardern has declined to take a position on recreational pot use.(AP: Mark Baker)

The outcome of the vote is not binding.

After the election, the incoming Government would introduce a bill to New Zealand’s parliament to legalise marijuana.

“This process would include the opportunity for the public to share their thoughts and ideas on how the law might work,” New Zealand’s Government says on its website.

But assuming the bill passes, it would mean that anyone over 20 could buy up to 14 grams of cannabis from a licensed pot shop.

An excise tax would be applied to commercial marijuana, and there would be health warnings on the packaging.

So who is likely to propose the bill?

Ms Ardern passed a bill which made medical marijuana legal in New Zealand in 2018.

But she has declined to take a position on recreational pot use and was coy when asked if she’d ever smoked cannabis.

“I feel like because we’re running a Government referendum here, that it’s my job to ensure the public have confidence in the information that’s being provided and confidence that we’ll deliver the outcome,” she said.

“I have frequently said before that there are very strong arguments on both sides. Personally, I’ve never wanted to see people criminalised for cannabis use, but equally I’ve always been concerned about young people accessing it.”

Anonymous woman's hands rolling a cannabis joint.Anonymous woman's hands rolling a cannabis joint.
Cannabis is one of the most widely available illicit drugs in New Zealand, according to police.(Unsplash: Thought Catalog)

If the vote is in favour, Ms Ardern would go with the will of the people and propose the bill. But whether that passes may depend on the outcome of the election and if she can form a government in her own right.

And if another party were to be elected, their position is pretty clear. Opposition leader Judith Collins is against it.

“I’ve made it very clear I’m voting for the End of Life Choice referendum and I’m voting against the cannabis one,” she said.

What is the End of Life Choice referendum?

After casting their votes on recreational cannabis, New Zealanders will be asked to decide on assisted dying.

The End of Life Choice Act has already been passed by New Zealand’s parliament, so a “yes” vote on the referendum will mean assisted dying is available in 12 months.

In that case, anyone who is over 18 and suffering a terminal illness that is likely to give them less than six months left can ask for “assisted dying”.

The patient’s doctor or nurse will give them medication “to end their suffering by bringing on death,” according to the New Zealand Government.

Assisted dying would not be an option for someone with a mental illness, physical disability, or someone who says they are too old to go on. The act has more than 45 safeguards that must be met.

What has the response to this issue been like?

According to research fellow at the University of Otago Jessica Young, whose research explored the views of terminally ill New Zealanders who would consider choosing assisted dying if it were available to them, a lot of the debate around this issue has focused on whether hospice and palliative care is enough to relieve all suffering.

An elderly man in silhouette sitting in a chair looking at trees.An elderly man in silhouette sitting in a chair looking at trees.
In this year’s election, New Zealand voters will also vote in a referendum on whether they support the End of Life Choice Act 2019.(ABC News: Natasha Johnson)

“Like Australia, we’re fortunate to have a world-class palliative care system,” she told the ABC.

“However, the Palliative Care Australia report concluded that 5 per cent of people suffer terribly at the end of life.”

The proposal to provide assisted dying already has broad political support after passing Parliament in 2019.

Ms Young said some commentators have suggested Parliament should have made the decision for the country instead of going to the referendum because they’ve had the opportunity to read and consider the evidence.

“Easy-to-understand information has been sent out by the Government and campaigns like Yes for Compassion are aiming to educate the public, but there’s a lot to think about with the cannabis referendum and the general election as well,” she said.

“New Zealand has been intensely debating this issue in Parliament since 2017 so people are well aware of the issue.”

So is New Zealand about to become the most liberal place on earth?

Under the leadership of Ms Ardern, New Zealand has certainly begun to build more of a reputation as a liberal country.

At one point, the New York Times described the PM as “the progressive antithesis to right-wing strongmen like Trump, [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban and [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi”.

According to Massey University professor of politics Richard Shaw, this has also been reflected by the broader voting public.

“… The political centre appears to be shifting to the left. Across the past four polls, support for Labour and the Greens sits around 62 per cent,” he wrote for The Conversation.

“When nearly two out of three voters in a naturally conservative nation support the centre-left, something is going on.”

 

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