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We’re not giving up hope yet – special votes on Friday could yet change the result, but it’s very likely the final count will show we have lost by a narrow margin and a majority of New Zealanders have voted against cannabis legalisation. It’s not the outcome the Drug Foundation hoped for, but we certainly don’t see the result as the end of the line for health-focused cannabis law reform. Drug Foundation chair Tuari Potiki sets out why.

Firstly, those who voted “no” were voting against a very specific piece of legislation that would have made cannabis legally available in stores. Many people expressed their caution about that idea, and that’s fair enough. For many it was a step too far, too quickly.

But the debate around the referendum did show a clear desire from the public for legal change in some form. Even those who campaigned for a “no” vote publicly accepted that cannabis use should be treated as a health and social issue, and decriminalised. These included the Salvation Army, the New Zealand Medical Association and a group of national leaders of most church denominations. 

That gives me hope. The debate has highlighted issues that we can’t realistically now turn our backs on as a country. We’ve heard about the pointless convictions, we’ve been outraged about the shameful discrimination against young people and Māori in the policing of our current laws, and we’ve cried over the unacceptable suffering that medicinal cannabis patients still undergo because products that could help them are not available or affordable.

We have to tackle those issues still, and I believe the New Zealand public is nearly unanimous with me on that. So, given the outcome of the referendum, what should the next steps be? 

The government now has a strong mandate to conclusively put an end to criminal penalties for those who use cannabis and other drugs, and for those who grow small quantities of cannabis at home for personal use. They should start by throwing out the Misuse of Drugs Act, an archaic dinosaur from the 1970s, replacing it with a piece of law that treats drug use as a health and social issue. 

There’s a world of opportunity now for a brave government to put together something transformative."

Tuari Potiki

Both the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and the outgoing justice minister and incoming health minister, Andrew Little, have previously expressed a desire for reform, and as far as we know, both voted yes in the referendum. So we know they understand the importance of this and get that it’s a public health issue. 

It was therefore upsetting to see comments from Little ruling out wider reforms to the Misuse of Drugs Act. He suggested he would prefer to tinker around the edges to make sure police discretion works better. With all respect, that’s never going to work for Māori, for young people, or for medicinal cannabis patients, and it doesn’t address the underlying issues of discrimination inherent in our existing drug law. 

We’re going to park this one for now until the special votes are counted, but I think he has read the tea leaves wrong. The public are fired up and they will require some kind of change. We know what that won’t look like – the cannabis bill. But there’s a world of opportunity now for a brave government to put together something transformative that is both politically palatable and does the right thing by those who find themselves unfairly at the pointy end of our laws time and time again.

This article first appeared in The Spinoff on 4 November.

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