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It's Pretty Much Official: New Zealand Won't Be Legalising Weed

The referendum results are in and it's looking bad. Here's what went wrong.
October 30, 2020, 3:08am

New Zealand has voted against legalising cannabis. The preliminary vote released today at 2PM showed 1,114,485 people voted for legalising cannabis, and 1,281,818 people voted against. There are still nearly 500,000 votes to be counted but unless 68 percent of those votes are for legalisation, it won’t be legalised. 

Over the last two years national polls swung back and forth, with support getting as high as 60 percent and as low as 39 percent. In early August, a poll showed the country was split right down the middle: 49.5 percent for legalising cannabis, 49.5 percent against.

In late September, the outcome was “on a knife’s edge,” Green Party MP and drug law reform spokeswoman Chlöe Swarbrick (known for her “okay boomer” call) told VICE News.

Swarbrick described the country’s relationship with cannabis as “full noise,” and compared the referendum’s chances to New Zealand’s 1919 vote on liquor prohibition. It got so close, she said, at one point the liquor ban was ahead by 13,000 votes. It was only after the special votes of 40,000 overseas soldiers were counted that prohibition was struck down.

James Borrowdale, journalist and author of the definitive book on cannabis in New Zealand, titled “Weed: A New Zealand Story,” told VICE News it was no surprise this referendum was so close. Cannabis had a long history of being politicized, he explained—some of it by “well-meaning people,” and some by those with more “nefarious intentions”.

“Cannabis is less harmful than alcohol,” he said, “but this isn’t about science. There are cultural reasons why we have this attitude towards one drug and a much more liberal attitude to a more harmful drug. Those cultural beliefs come from history and are throughout history. That is why it’s so close.”

“Whatever we vote, whatever decision we make, we’re not making it objectively. All these cultural considerations come into play and the history of cannabis has been one that makes it fertile ground for those cultural beliefs.”

How New Zealand would have changed

It’s currently illegal in New Zealand to grow or buy cannabis—and will now remain that way for the foreseeable future unless special votes come in strongly for legalisation next week. But the new bill, aimed at reducing cannabis-related harm, would have changed all of that. 

The bill would have had details changed in parliament before becoming a law, but based on its current form people over 20 would have been able to buy up to 14 grams of cannabis from licensed retailers, of which there would have been an estimated 420 (yes, we know) across the country. They would have been able to grow cannabis at home, with a household maximum of four plants. There would have been limits on potency, packaging, smoking in public, and supplying cannabis to people younger than 20.

The new bill was about legalising cannabis, but it was not just about cannabis. It was about the disproportionate number of Maori that have been convicted, the rise of deadly synthetics, and the fact cannabis became a political tool rather than a health issue. It was always going to be close.

How did New Zealand get left in the past?

Reports involving cannabis in New Zealand date back to 1888, when a Dunedin-based dentist advertised cannabis as an anaesthetic, alongside cocaine, for extracting teeth. Locals didn’t coin a name for it though until the Boer War, between 1899 and 1902, when New Zealand soldiers, unable to pronounce the local name for cannabis—“Dagga”—came up with a long-lasting single syllable alternative: “Dak.”

For a while cannabis was used as a natural remedy—but then, beginning in the 1910s, there was an international cultural shift against the drug. Political propaganda, led by the US, began to link it to violent, criminal and deviant behaviour. 

New Zealand laws soon targeted cannabis. In 1928, the Dangerous Drugs Act came into effect, putting “Indian Hemp” (cannabis) next to heroin and opium as a “dangerous drug.” The law wasn’t passed to stop an existing deluge of cannabis; it was an attempt to get in before any harm hit. But it wasn’t until 1960 that cannabis possession was made illegal. From then, if a person was caught with cannabis they faced up to seven years in prison, or up to 14 years if they were caught dealing to a minor.

The tempo was raised in 1965 with the passing of the Narcotics Act. After that, if a person was found with more than 28 grams of cannabis, or if they had 100 or more joints, police could search their property without a warrant as long as they had a reason to believe there were drugs.

As the laws grew harsher, cannabis use in New Zealand was growing. According to Borrowdale’s book, a Medical Council researcher named Father Leonard McFerran estimated in 1965 that there were about 500 cannabis smokers in the country. By the early 1970s, there were about 260,000 smokers. Offences rose at the same time, from just seven cannabis offences in 1965 to more than 2,000 a decade later.

About 11 percent of New Zealanders now use cannabis, earning the country one of the highest consumption rates in the world per capita.

Tim, a 26-year-old pakeha man, (who did not want to use his real name since he works for the government) is one of those users. He lives in Wellington with five others, including two daily cannabis users who “unplug all of the appliances to power the electric grinder.” He told VICE News he had a “long history with cannabis,” beginning when he was 15, but he’d never had a run-in with the law. “I’m not too worried about the police,” he said, “but I’m white so that probably helps.” 

Tim said the backlash against the new bill was based on outdated cliches. “It’s a ‘fucking hippies’ kind of thing, and a fear of young people smoking heaps of weed and becoming useless as hell,” he said. Though he prefers alcohol to cannabis these days, he hoped the referendum would pass. 

The impact of a cannabis conviction

In 1983, 62-year-old union worker Sheryl Cadman, then in her twenties, was arrested for having a foilie on her (“what we called a bullet then,” she said) in a pub in Auckland. She spent most of the night in the cells. The following day she pleaded guilty to possession and was fined $200. 

“Spending time in the cells, having your fingerprints done: none of it is pleasant, especially when all you’ve done is had some cannabis in your pocket,” she told VICE News. “But at least back then employers didn’t want your criminal record; it didn’t affect my work. It would today. Even for a supermarket worker, they want a copy of your criminal record, and that intrusion into our private life is insidious.”

Nearly 40 years on, she’s still dealing with the effects of her conviction. Cadman visits Australia once or twice a year, and every time she gets pulled aside by Customs officials and is forced to explain that she has not been “in any trouble” since 1983. She has family in Canada but, because of the conviction, she would need to get clearance to visit them, which would cost up to $1,000.

Her conviction didn’t change her thoughts or habits on cannabis. It’s mostly been a lingering nuisance, but at least she is a pakeha woman. “For young people, for young Maori, getting a conviction can have a terrible, terrible effect on their future,” she said. “Quite frankly, what happens to these people is out of all proportion to smoking a bit of dope.”

Maori men are bearing the brunt of criminalisation

One of the main arguments against the referendum was that criminalization for cannabis crimes in New Zealand had already fallen. In 2009, there were 17,133 cannabis-related charges. By 2018, it was down to 6,438 charges. 

In late 2018 New Zealand also passed the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act, which directed police to only prosecute personal-use drug offences if it was in the “public interest” to do so. It called for consideration to be taken if a “health centred or therapeutic approach” would be better for the public. It was touted by Swarbrick as the “most significant drug law reform in 40 years”.

Even so, one of the big reasons why decriminalization was still necessary, according to Borrowdale, was that police had the discretion to charge people. This set “a dangerous precedent, effectively taking the law… from the dispassionate black and white of the law books and [putting it] into fallible hands,” he wrote.    

And then there’s New Zealand’s prison population, which, as Cadman noted, is disproportionately Maori. Despite New Zealand trying to redress inequalities with Maori, they have suffered the most from drug charges.

Maori make up 15 percent of New Zealand’s population, but the country’s prisons are 52 percent Maori—and 43 percent of those in prisons are there because of drug-related charges, including cannabis.

As former Green Party MP and drug-law reform spokesperson Nandor Tanczos told Borrowdale: “The illegality of cannabis, the brunt of that has always been borne by, primarily, a small section of society—particularly young brown men.”

So what happens now?

The referendum has failed, unless special votes come flooding in in favour of cannabis legalisation. But Cadman told VICE News it should never have been up to the public in the first place.

“To put it to a referendum was gutless,” she said. “Criminalising a whole heap of people for victimless crimes is just daft; spending all that money is just daft. We know it’s racist. The government needs to be courageous and do what they should have done at the start: call it a health issue and fix it.”

For now though, buying and growing cannabis remains illegal in New Zealand.

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