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As the dust settles from the cannabis referendum, we have been putting a lot of thought into the game plan for drug law reform going forward. Policy and Advocacy Manager Kali Mercier offers her thoughts on a path forward.

The referendum result – so frustratingly close - was for many an overwhelming disappointment, to put it mildly. Hard as it might be to accept the result, we need to keep in mind that the journey towards healthy drug law was always going to be a long-term battle: hard won, with both victories and setbacks along the route.

This is reflected in pathways to legalisation that we’ve seen in other countries and states. It can take years, and in some cases decades, to get from the first halting steps towards reform through to fully-fledged legalisation. Often the journey starts with decriminalisation, or easier access for medicinal cannabis patients, then progresses via a series of public ballots to legal regulation of supply.

New Zealand attempted to jump straight from a fairly conservative drug law to a proposal to sell cannabis in shops. This big conceptual shift scared a lot of people. The argument that regulating cannabis would improve public health and lead to a reduction in overall harm was a lot to take in for those who don’t have a basic understanding of drug law policy and the social and cultural factors that underpin the need for reform.

It’s a dead certainty that support for legalisation will only continue to grow over time. 

It is worth noting though that support for legalisation jumped from 28% in 2017, to 48.4% just 3 years laterThat’s a significant achievement whichever way you look at it. It’s a dead certainty that support for legalisation will only continue to grow over time. That’s certainly been the trend internationally, and it also reflects the fact that younger voters were far more likely to vote yes than older voters.

In short, the referendum was a single point on our journey, albeit a disappointing - and for some, a devastating - one. But we are far from giving up on drug law reform. In fact, we remain convinced that real change is only a matter of time. Of course, many people do not have time on their hands. Medicinal cannabis patients spring to mind here, as do the several thousand people who are likely to be convicted of cannabis offences this year. So we have to keep moving fast, and we have to keep the end goals in mind.

However, we’re also going to have to be a bit patient. Realistically, getting significant change to happen in terms of legalisation or even decriminalisation may well be a slow burn, measured in months and years, not weeks.

So what can we hope to achieve going forward? On hearing the referendum results, the Government indicated they are not keen to move on any substantive reform for cannabis this term. They felt the result meant there was no mandate for change. We think they have read the tea leaves dead wrong on that. There is in fact a huge mandate for change. 

While fewer than 50% voted yes to the specific piece of legislation at the ballot, the number who support law reform of some kind is significantly higher and will only grow over time. Law reform - either decriminalisation or legalisation - is supported by a huge majority of New Zealanders according to 2018 polling. 

We’ll be continuing to promote changes that put drug use squarely into the health space rather than the criminal justice space. 

Even prominent organisations that came out for a ‘no’ vote, such as the NZMA and the Salvation Army, are keen on the idea of removing criminal penalties for possession and use of cannabis.

So what will we be pushing the Government to do? We’ll be continuing to promote changes that put drug use squarely into the health space rather than the criminal justice space. In the case of cannabis, legalisation is the clear winner in terms of public health outcomes, and we’ll keep promoting that as a solution in the long term.

In terms of what we can hope to achieve with this Government, especially in the short term, the focus should be on replacing the archaic Misuse of Drugs Act with a piece of legislation that puts health first. At the very least, the Government should be removing criminal penalties for all drug use, including growing small amounts of cannabis for personal use, and they should be doing it under urgency. 

I suspect the Government will prefer to keep making small changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act in a piecemeal fashion. We need to keep them honest on this – making tweaks won’t solve the fundamental issues caused by a piece of law way past its use-by date. The law entrenches poor public health outcomes, it promotes disproportionately bad outcomes for Māori and young people, it penalises medicinal cannabis patients, and it’s a disaster in the area of criminal justice. Time for a re-write.

At the Drug Foundation, we’re clear where we need to go and we’ll be holding the Government to account. We also recognise that we need to be patient, hard as that is to swallow. We’ll be playing to our strengths – developing policy solutions, building consensus, and keeping the issue live in the media.  You’ll no longer be seeing public advertisements from us, nor flyers, posters and social media campaigns. But that doesn’t mean we’ve given up hope – far from it. The fight is just beginning!

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