Some 80% of its population has used it, including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, even though it’s against the law. But New Zealand might say no to legalizing recreational cannabis in the general election on Oct. 17. Two major opinion polls show support waning for a non-binding referendum to end the prohibition. Why would a country where “weed” is widely used turn down the opportunity to acknowledge its ubiquity and reject laws turning users into criminals? In public discussions and debates, the focus seems to be on the next generation.
1. What’s the proposal?
From the age of 20, a person would be allowed to buy as much as 14 grams (about half an ounce) of dried cannabis a day from licensed outlets, and to grow two plants at home (with a limit of four plants per household). There would be shops selling pot of different varieties and strengths, and eventually other products such as edibles, though not gummy bears or anything resembling children’s sweets. Smoking or vaping in public areas or buildings would be prohibited, except in specially licensed cafes. Advertising of cannabis products would be banned.
Medicinal cannabis, which requires a doctor’s prescription, has already been legalized in New Zealand.
2. And the arguments?
Advocates say the change would reduce harm from cannabis by eliminating illegal supply from gangs, regulating its quality and safety and blocking access to those under 20. It would raise awareness of the health risks, including requiring warning labels. They also say indigenous Maori are disproportionally criminalized by cannabis prohibition, as they are three times more likely to be arrested and convicted for possession of the drug than non-Maori.
Opponents say cannabis is a serious drug that harms mental health, particularly among adolescents, and legalizing it will send a message to children that it’s OK. In the run-up to the election, this has emerged as a reason many parents give for voting no despite having smoked pot themselves.
3. Are Kiwis all pot-heads?
The cannabis plant grows easily in New Zealand, particularly in the sub-tropical far north, and the drug has long been readily available on the black market. Marijuana — the plant’s dried leaves and flowers — is the
most common form (there’s also hashish and hash oil). The Drug Foundation, which supports legalization, says 80% of New Zealanders have tried the drug by the age of 20 and 12% have used it in the past year. These numbers suggest Kiwis are among the biggest users in the world. Only 36% of Australians try weed in their lifetimes and 11.6% at least once a year, according to a government report in 2019. In Canada, regular use of cannabis among those 15 and older rose to 16.8% from 14.9% after it was legalized in 2018, a government study found. It said nearly half of Canadians have used it at some time.
4. What do the politicians say?
Ardern, 40, was asked in a political debate whether she has ever used cannabis. “Yes I did, a long time ago,” she replied. But the prime minister refuses to say how she will vote in the referendum, perhaps wary of alienating a sizable chunk of voters. Opposition leader Judith Collins, 61, says she’s never used pot and will vote no in the referendum due to concerns about its impact on the mental health of young people. While the referendum is not binding, the next government will find it hard to ignore. The result will be released two weeks after the election.
5. What do the polls say?
According to New Zealand’s two largest television news broadcasters, support has flagged. TVNZ in September found just 35% were in favor, down from 40% in June, while Newshub had the yes vote at 38%. But two later surveys suggest a tighter race. A UMR poll released Oct. 6 said 49% would vote yes and 45% no. A Horizon Research survey published Oct. 7 had 52% of respondents in favor, but said it was still
too close to call. The problem for the pro-legalization camp is that its support is strongest among younger people who are less likely to actually vote.
6. What else is on the ballot?
New Zealanders will also vote on whether to legalize euthanasia, and that looks certain to pass, with support above 60% in the latest poll. The libertarian ACT Party has championed this change.
7. What about the election itself?
It looks like a slam-dunk for Ardern. Her Labour Party had 47% support in the latest poll, while the opposition National Party was at 32%. Labour’s ally, the Green Party — which is pushing for a yes vote on cannabis — was at 6%, giving the pair a comfortable majority over National and its ally ACT, which was at 8%. The populist New Zealand First Party, currently in coalition with Labour, looks to be heading for political oblivion. It had just 2% support in the poll, well below the 5% it needs to get back into parliament.
The Reference Shelf
- The New Zealand government’s
official guide to the referendum.
- Websites for the
“vote yes” camp and the “
say nope to dope” camp.
- Bloomberg Businessweek
profiles Jacinda Ardern ahead of the election.
- Bloomberg Intelligence
examines New Zealand’s path for a post-pandemic economic recovery, and Bloomberg Opinion’s Cass Sunstein writes on New Zealand’s “
Why New Zealand Voters Will Say No to Legalizing Pot at Election – Bloomberg