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.

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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.”