For the best part of six months, the long-time executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation has been dedicated to one task.

And in nine days’ time, that task will have been completed by Ross Bell. It will also be the final one of his 16-year tenure at the Wellington-based think-tank before taking a senior role at the Ministry of Health.

Whether he will go out as the man who steered New Zealand into a new liberal era remains to be seen.

Regardless, October 17 will spell the end of an often-fractious campaign that saw Bell pitched against the voices of conservatism as New Zealand debated the merits of legalising recreational cannabis.

Ross Bell: leading the charge for a ‘yes’ vote

Bell has sometimes cut a weary figure in debates, slowly shaking his head and smiling ruefully at the arguments against legalisation.

His smile come next Sunday may just be one of jubilation at orchestrating a historic win for the ‘yes’ vote.

Equally, his decade-and-a-half at the NZ Drug Foundation could end in disappointment should the ‘no’ vote get across the line. Given the varied poll results, it’s anyone’s guess which way it will swing.

According to Bell, the referendum result will have global ramifications, irrespective of the result. With Jacinda Ardern rapidly gaining international recognition and respect, a win for reformists during her tenure will alert other countries more than it might ordinarily have done.

“There is no doubt that like-minded countries look towards New Zealand now, particularly following the relative success we’ve had with Covid-19 and the leadership our PM has shown through this and other issues,” Bell said. “If the country votes yes, I think it will help overseas politicians feel more comfortable about taking similar steps and will help advocates say, ‘look, the Kiwis have done it, so can we’.

“But if the New Zealand public in their wisdom vote no I think it sends a message to politicians, including Australian and UK politicians who might be thinking about reform, that actually, no, it’s not worth burning political capital on.”

Convincing the undecided   

Bell has long argued the balance of power rests with the undecided. And encouragingly for the pro-legalisation camp, he claimed the more wavering voters learn about the “strict controls” contained in the bill, the more likely they are to tick the yes box.

Equally critical will be turnout. Historically, the vast majority of conservative, over-55 males – regarded as the staunchest members of the anti-cannabis movement – are registered to vote, and will do so.

Conversely, the supporter base for legalisation may be politically disenfranchised and not enrolled to vote. Bell said it was vital they become active.

“This vote is totally generational,” he said. “But there is an irony here. What we’ve seen in other jurisdictions is that there haven’t been massive increases in the use of cannabis among youths. What we’ve seen is the general increase of cannabis use is in people over 55. So they don’t vote yes, but they have certainly enjoyed the benefits.”

The no lobby has been officially led by Family First through its ‘say no to dope’ campaign. The Christian organisation has received backing from what Bell described as “strange bedfellows”, including the Church of Scientology. Many of the arguments, he told Cannabiz, “are what you’d expect”.

“It’s that old school ‘reefer madness’ image, it’s a campaign all about fear,” he said. “All the imagery is kids taking cannabis, mental health problems, all these stoners looking dirty and scummy. It’s certainly not been a good faith campaign.

“But I’m not too worried about them. When we’ve done our market research and run focus groups, a lot of people find their arguments laughable. So they’re an annoyance, but I don’t think they have been too potent.”

Of more concern has been the “informal campaign”, the hard-wired stance that “drugs are bad and prohibition will protect us”, Bell said.

“We have been competing against gut reactions, reinforced by some elements of the media and industry groups who are worried their workers will suddenly show up to work stoned, that our roads will suddenly become really dangerous with high drivers, that kids will be smoking at school, that everyone will develop schizophrenia.

“These are fears that have developed over decades of prohibition. So my biggest opposition, and challenge, has been fighting this legacy. And it’s hard to overcome.

“Even though our polling shows a high level of agreement that prohibition hasn’t worked, including among no voters, it won’t change their minds. They will still vote no.”

For those reasons, the NZ Drug Foundation, together with fellow yes campaigners the Helen Clark Foundation, have not attempted to change the minds of firm no voters but focused instead on convincing the undecided.

That has involved educating people that legalisation does not mean a cannabis free-for-all, but is a framework built around control. That includes setting an age limit of 20 to buy and use cannabis, potency limits, a ban on advertising and strict controls over licensing and where cannabis can be sold and used.

“You won’t see the All Blacks sponsored by cannabis,” the NZ Drug Foundation says on its websites.

The medicinal cannabis link

The pro-cannabis lobby has built its messaging around the slogan ‘on our terms’. Its advertising campaign has articulated a range of benefits it believes will flow from legalisation, from freeing up police from pursuing trivial crimes to raising up to NZ$500m in taxes, some of which will fund drug education and health programs.

One of the TV ads designed to help New Zealanders understand the Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill

Some $200 million and 333,000 police hours are spent on cannabis enforcement and convictions, money and time that should be spent on serious crime, the foundation says.

But another argument – which has riled the anti-cannabis campaigners – has centred on the medical benefits of a legalised environment.

Say No To Dope believe the health message is disingenuous and designed to bring respectability to a bill which has recreational use at its core.

But the NZ Drug Foundation remains adamant that legalisation will improve access for patients and provide access to cheaper, better quality cannabis.  

“Patients should be able to access the medicine that works for them without fear of prosecution,” the organisation says. “Legal cannabis would mean easier, cheaper access for patients to a wider range of products.

“Right now, people who use cannabis get it from the black market, outside of any Government control. This is not about creating a new market, it’s about putting controls around an existing one.”

According to estimates, almost 600,000 New Zealanders access cannabis illegally, a “clear demonstration” that current laws are not working, Bell said.

“We know that cannabis, like any drug, can do harm, especially if you use it when you’re young, use heavily or use high-potency products. Because cannabis is illegal, we have no control over it right now. The purpose of the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill is to put those controls in place, from seed to sale. This will make it safer, and help New Zealanders to reduce harmful use over time.”

Linking medicinal use with the referendum has angered the no camp. Asked if he could understand the criticisms, Bell told Cannabiz: “At one level, at a technical level I can. They say ‘we’ve already got a medical cannabis scheme [which launched earlier this year] and this referendum is not about medical’. Technically that is correct.

“But with the medical scheme there is only one product, Sativex, that has been approved and that’s not going to change any time soon. Companies are still gearing up for licences and, like Australia, the New Zealand scheme is pretty rigorous, there are hoops to jump through. And even if we have a domestic industry, products are going to be expensive and unlikely to be subsidised by government. It’s not going to be easy for anyone.

“The other problem, and it’s the one that pisses me off the most, is the medical professionals. They simply don’t want to learn about medicinal cannabis. They all say, ‘there’s no evidence, I can’t prescribe this because there’s no decent research’. I think a lot of the doctors are simply lazy and they haven’t bothered to learn.”

The end result of the current medical framework will be patients unable to access cannabis through the official medicinal route, he says. Furthermore, Bell contends that many people who derive benefits from cannabis – for anxiety, sleep and general wellbeing – would not access the drug via a medical regime anyway. Reform would enable those patients to legally buy cannabis in a safe and controlled framework and eliminate the need to turn to the black market.

Campaigners believe undecided voters lean towards a ‘yes’ vote the more they learn about the bill

He conceded that some within the medicinal cannabis industry have expressed concern that the referendum has “muddied the waters” and detracted from the new medical framework. Yet privately, many have backed legalisation, Bell says, possibly realising that a business model based on hard-to-access medical cannabis could be commercially challenging.

Bell also played down suggestions that potential patients will bypass the licenced medical growers and manufacturers and simply grow their own plants.

While tecnically possible – each household will be free to cultivate a maximum of four plants under a legalised system – he predicted the home-grown cannabis enthusiast will mirror that of the DIY brewer.

“Just as a few people brew their own beer, some will grow their own cannabis plants,” Bell predicted. “But the convenience of going to a specialist store is going to be a much bigger thing.

“A more fundamental driver of the market is that the cannabis consumer is quite picky, they’re selective. They are more like the hipsters who like their craft IPA. They will want to know the grower, and know where the product has come from. That’s going to have a bigger influence on what the market may look like.”

Bell imagined a modest industry, with small farms dotted around the countryside, and “cool”, understated stores selling premium product.

“That’s what I’m hoping will happen, I don’t want to see the Coca-Colarisation of cannabis, and I don’t think it will happen.”

The Jacinda Ardern factor   

There is some frustration – mixed with relief – on both sides of the debate that New Zealand’s hugely popular PM has not revealed her hand. Had Jacinda Ardern done so – which she has consistently refused to do – it is felt it would have swayed many undecided voters, such is her popularity.

Jacinda Ardern has refused to reveal her hand

Arden has refused to be drawn on which box she will tick, but Bell says the support of former PM Helen Clark has been a “useful proxy for how Labour voters should be thinking”.

There is also frustration for Bell that a referendum is being held at all. He argues that if the science is there, and legalisation is the right thing to do, “politicians should just bloody do it”.

“The Government is sitting this one out which is really annoying. You shouldn’t put complicated law to the vote,” he said.

If there was surprise that such a sensitive, complex and emotive issue was placed in the hands of the public – as the UK’s membership of the European Union was in 2016 – there was equal surprise at the front and centre role played by the NZ Drug Foundation.

Bell concedes its role as the lead campaign body “upset a few people”.

Equally, its respected position as a NZ think tank has given widespread legitimacy to the yes vote.

This has not been a crusade led by a disparate band of cannabis advocacy groups, but one led by an independent organisation with an admired, evidence-based track record.

“We have always been a policy think tank that is evidence-based and we remain that,” Bell said. “But the fact we took a position shocked a few people.

“But what also shocked people was the fact the campaign we launched was pretty cool and in your face which worried the no camp.

“The message people should take away from our involvement in the yes campaign is that, ‘hey we should take notice’. This is an organisation that has been respected on so many other issues and for us to say ‘vote yes’, that should bring a lot of credit to the campaign.

“But it has put us in uncomfortable territory. Our funders (a combination of government, corporate and private grants and donations) are looking at us nervously and waiting until after the election to re-engage with us.”

That wait is almost over.

If the cards fall into place, Bell might just exit the NZ Drug Foundation having overseen a landmark moment in New Zealand’s history.   

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  1. Millions of people around the world are watching closely, really hoping that common sense prevails with this referendum. This is the result of decades of activism and tough social progress to reverse the destructive failure that is prohibition. Hoping to celebrate with you all this weekend!