Campaigners who fought to legalise recreational cannabis in New Zealand have spoken of their bitter disppointment at losing the referendum and admitted they struggled to get their message across to wavering voters.

While the no camp played on deeply-engrained fears and anxieties surrounding drugs, the pro-cannabis lobby – fronted by the New Zealand Drug Foundation – had a more complex and nuanced story to tell, they said.

NZ Drug Foundation policy and advocacy manager Kali Mercier said she was “still a bit weepy” after failing by such a narrow margin to convince enough Kiwis to vote yes.

The yes camp captured 48.4% of the vote against 50.7% for anti-cannabis groups.

Professor Joseph Boden and NZ Drug Foundation’s Kali Mercier: the majority decided the rights of the minority

It is feared the defeat will put back legalisation up to 15 years.

Speaking at the Prohibition Partners conference, Mercier said people accepted the predictable fears that cannabis would become normalised, end up in the hands of children and create societal harm.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that people are quite conservative and bought the ‘drugs are evil’ line,” she said. “I think we really struggled as a campaign to explain that legalisation was about reducing harm and controlling an existing market and making it harder for young people to access cannabis.

“When we had one-on-one conversations and explained it for 20 minutes, people always got it and ended up saying they would vote yes. But it was impossible to get hold of every voter in New Zealand and have that conversation.”

She continued: “The great frustration was that we are trying to teach people public health law and policy and what the legislation did and said, how it compared to what we have done with alcohol and tobacco. But it’s complex and hard to explain.

“All the no campaign had to say was ‘oh this will mean more young people smoking’. They could basically finish there.

“They sowed seeds of fear and doubt. We had to spend 20 minutes talking to people explaining why that was not right.”

Another pro-cannabis supporter, Professor Joseph Boden from the University of Otago in Christchurch, added: “If you are using fear as a messaging tool you have an inherent advantage because psychologically you have better access to persuading people that your message is the right one.”  

All the no campaign had to say was ‘oh, this will mean more young people smoking’… they sowed seeds of fear and doubt. We had to spend 20 minutes explaining why that was not the case

kali mercier, nz drug foundation

Mercier said it was wrong that an issue which affects a minority of the population – including Maori communities, young people and medicinal cannabis patients – should be decided by the majority in a referendum.

She estimated that 66% of no voters were aged over 60.

“It was incredibly frustrating,” she said. “What upsets me is that older people, who this doesn’t effect at all, were voting on behalf of younger people, Maoris and medicinal cannabis patients. A referendum is not the way you should decide a minority issue.”

While medicinal cannabis is legal in New Zealand, Mercier argued it remains hard to get and expensive.

Patient groups had campaigned hard and were suffering a “huge amount of disappointment”, she said.

A study by Professor Boden found Maoris were three times more likely to be convicted of a cannabis-related crime than other users.

The law is “clearly being applied in a biased manner”, he said.

“Only a minority of New Zealanders are regular users of cannabis and what you have here is a referendum where the majority are deciding the rights of the minority,” Boden said. “That is not how you should do any sort of legislation whether it’s public health or for any other purpose.”

Both Mercier and Boden agreed that legalisation was unlikely to return to the political agenda for several years.

“It has set us back a lot,” Mercier said. “Politically you would need to be a brave government to try and legalise cannabis after we have just lost a referendum. I think it’s going to be a long time before they would dare put it back on the agenda as a fully fledged legalisation model.”

Mercier suggested the leap from cannabis being illegal to suddenly being available in shops was too dramatic for some people.  A first step to decriminalise cannabis, rather than jump directly to full legalisation, may have been more prudent, she said

Boden predicted other countries – Australia included – will learn from the NZ experience.

“A lot of campaigners in Australia will now say ‘we know what not to do’… and will be able to get ahead of the path.

“But they are still dealing with a reactionary, conservative government at the moment so they may have to wait for that to change.”

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