Where to from here after the cannabis referendum? By Rose Crossin

I was doing a lot of reading in the run-up to the cannabis referendum, particularly around the public health impacts of legalisation. Part of the challenge is that we don’t always have the data we want or need to make decisions, or there is data from only a short period of time, or from a different cultural context. I advocated for a ‘yes’ vote, but always with caveats around the need for robust monitoring and evaluation processes. This article in Drug and Alcohol Review by Fischer et al. was one that reinforced my thinking around the need for this rigour, neatly summarised in the closing sentence of the abstract: “Legalisation remains a well-intended, while experimental policy option towards more measured and sensible cannabis control and overall greater policy coherence, requiring close monitoring and possible adjustments depending on setting-specific outcomes”.1 My view was that we have strong evidence that the status quo of prohibition was not working to reduce harms, and therefore, legalisation was the best option, knowing that with monitoring, evaluation, and legislative review processes, any emergent problems with the regulatory framework could be identified and resolved.  


I was personally disappointed by the loss in the referendum, particularly as it was very close. The draft Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill provided a starting point for policy and regulatory frameworks to be established, monitored, evaluated, and revised; always with a view to the overarching goal of reducing cannabis-related harm to individuals, family / whānau and communities in Aotearoa New Zealand. Knowing now that the Bill will not be enacted, it is another set of words from the Fischer et al. paper that now draw my attention. In talking about overly commercialised alcohol controls in New Zealand, the authors observe “This is not necessary, but rather a freely chosen policy design option …” I reflect on these words and ask, what was it that was chosen in relation to cannabis? Did those who voted ‘no’ choose for cannabis to disappear and stop causing harm in New Zealand? Of course not. What was chosen was the status quo, where the black market controls cannabis production and supply, approximately 1-in-10 New Zealander’s use it2 (though many will not experience harm), and people, particularly Māori, are stigmatised, shamed, and inequitably prosecuted for their cannabis use.        


Much will be written about why the cannabis referendum failed, and indeed, whether the question should have been put to a referendum at all. My work as a researcher can be summarised as; how do we reduce drug and alcohol-related harms at a population level. Therefore, I need to let go of my disappointment around the loss and think about a path forward, which for me is based on the importance of evidence for effective policy design (and monitoring and evaluation), and that the outcomes of policy are based on freely chosen options. One thing we need is better data to support our understanding of the harms associated with alcohol and other drug use, and the harms arising from our current policies. Measuring harm is distinct from measuring use, and should lead us down a more nuanced and health-based policy path. With this knowledge we can counter misinformation, and evaluate and challenge the current policy settings. The choices to be made in the short-term no longer rest with us as voters, but with the incoming Government. We have recently seen a statement from the Justice Minister that in the wake of the referendum it would be "irresponsible" for the Government to legalise or decriminalise cannabis, or undertake widespread drug law reform in the wake of the "no" vote. "We have no other plans for drug law reform," he said.3 I urge the Prime Minister and Cabinet to then ask themselves if they are happy with the status quo as a ‘freely chosen policy design option’. And if the answer is no, then meaningful drug policy reform should not be off the table. Given that the status quo is unacceptable to so many New Zealanders, indeed 1,406,973 of us,4 it seems inevitable that drug policy reform will need to occur.  


New Zealand lost this opportunity to regulate and control cannabis, and I think that is a decision we will ultimately regret. The work to understand drug and alcohol harms at the population level, monitor the policy impacts using harm data, and advocate for evidence-based policy will continue. The goals of reducing cannabis-related harm, ending racial discrimination in the justice system, and providing drug education and treatment without stigma must stand. Our challenge now is to maintain our focus on these worthy goals, as researchers, clinicians, advocates, and citizens, to remind our Government that removing inequity and harm requires active policy choice.  


1 Fischer, B., Daldegan-Bueno, D., & Boden, J. M. (2020). Facing the option for the legalisation of cannabis use and supply in New Zealand: an overview of relevant evidence, options and considerations. Drug and Alcohol Review. 

2 A survey from 2012/13 found that Eleven percent of adults aged 15 years and over reported using cannabis in the last 12 months, source: https://www.health.govt.nz/publication/cannabis-use-2012-13-new-zealand-health-survey  

3 Media story following statement from Justice Minister Andrew Little on 31 October 2020, source: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/referendum-results-prime-minister-jacinda-ardern-explains-why-she-voted-for-cannabis-reform/ZVOO2PEHGQKGAC645FEXBQKXIA/  

4 The number who voted ‘yes’ in the cannabis referendum, source: https://www.electionresults.govt.nz/electionresults_2020/referendums-results.html