New Zealand's rejection of legalising cannabis is a triumph for fear-mongering

By Fiona Hutton

Sadly New Zealand has voted no to legalising cannabis, but it was close: 48.4% voted in support of the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill and 50.7% voted against.

As someone who campaigned hard for a yes vote, for much needed reform of our drug laws, I am reduced to tears. I have been receiving heartbreaking emails from people thanking me for my work to try and get the evidence out there, to try and stem the tide of fear-mongering and misinformation about cannabis and those who use it.

People are weeping for their communities, families and friends who have been affected by drug laws over the decades since the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1975 was introduced in Zealand, for the lost opportunity for reform, and most of all for those marginalised and vulnerable communities who will continue to bear the brunt of our outdated drug laws that are no longer fit for purpose.

The result also doesn’t help those who have to live with the stigma of drug-related convictions. During a recent research project, I talked to New Zealanders living with the stigma of drug-related convictions. Consider the person who said: “I was broken for quite a long time [after being convicted of cannabis possession], I was always living with that in the background.”

Or the person who noted that after being convicted it was “just shame, you just carry this terrible shame”. Or the person who said of the stigma of cannabis-related convictions: “I just felt depressed and anxious and stressed out, I didn’t need that sort of negative attention.” Or another person who said that “the worst thing about having a drug conviction is that if forces you to live on the margins”. We have failed them, we have voted for a system that continues to marginalise, stigmatise and criminalise them.

After more than 20 years of working, teaching and researching in the drugs field, the evidence is very clear: that criminalising people for low-level drugs offences is damaging, that prohibition has not stopped the use of cannabis and other drugs. It’s clear that it has not reduced harm, has not protected young people, or those with mental health issues and addictions, and that is has entrenched stigma towards those who use drugs made illegal in our society. That stigma makes it harder for people who have problems with drugs like cannabis to get help.

Nowhere was stigma so clear than in the advertisements of the no campaign – based on outdated moralised notions of those who use drugs, influenced by rightwing religious groups from the US. This is one of the most devastating things about the results, that the playing field was never level, that absolutely fantastic academics, community groups, organisations and campaigners, many operating on shoestring budgets, in their own time, sought to educate, to inform, to circulate evidence, to give people clear and balanced information, fought to get their voices heard in amongst swirling misinformation and misdirection. The results are a resounding triumph for stigma, fear-mongering and myths and a terrible blow for evidence, equity and harm reduction.

So if you think I sound bitter, damn right I do! Perhaps it’s true that cannabis and other criminal justice related issues should never be decided in referendum – they are just too open to misinformation based on sensationalism, particularly in an era of fake news and clickbait headlines.

I am saddened that the groups who have suffered the most from our drug laws, those who are pushed to the margins of society, will continue to be criminalised and harmed by our current drug laws. Māori, who make up around 16% of the population, but over 50% of the prison population (about 40% of those in prison for drugs offences) , are three times more likely to suffer legal problems than Pākehā (European New Zealanders) due to their cannabis use.

However, I am also angered at the inadequate and underwhelming governmental response to the result. Jacinda Ardern stated that there will be “no attempt by labour to legalise or decriminalise cannabis in the light of the referendum result,” and I find this unforgivable – especially from a government that never really backed their own bill, and have dropped the idea of reform like the political hotcake it sadly remains.

As other countries make leaps and bounds in their drug law reforms New Zealand seems bound to the tired and worn path of prohibition.

Although the fact the final margin of the vote was only around 2% is hugely positive, and a step forward, albeit as small one, in the right direction. It shows that New Zealand does have an appetite for reform.

People narrowly voted no to a specific piece of legislation, and other kinds of reform should not be ruled out, especially by a government that supports a health -elated approach to drugs. Even those who campaigned for a no vote noted that the current system is not working, so now is the time for the government to take a stand, to enact much needed reform, to take a social justice approach to substance use, and to lead on this important issue.

This is all the more important in the midst of a global pandemic, and when there are tough times ahead.

The hard work of the yes campaigners that highlighted key debates around cannabis and drug law reform has placed those issues, and more importantly the evidence, firmly in the public domain – there is no going back from this, this knowledge will not go away, and the hard work starts over to achieve some much needed reform to our outdated and harmful drug laws.

The harms related to cannabis (and other drug) use and criminalisation will carry on unabated for generations to come unless we and our governments have the courage to face them.

Dr Fiona Hutton is an Associate Professor, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University, Wellington.