According to the London Free Press, Dr. Fiona Hutton said the “no” vote on New Zealand’s cannabis referendum is a “victory” for those who campaign misinformation about the drug.
The associate professor at Victoria University’s Institute of Criminology wrote in The Guardian that she “was reduced to tears” when the voting results came in, and 50.7% have voted “no” to legal cannabis.
Hutton continues to express her disappointment in the said article, sharing that people have been sending emails to thank her for her restless work on trying to end the stigma around cannabis, to “try and stem the tide of fear-mongering and misinformation about cannabis and those who use it.”
Hutton also says that the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1975 has affected mostly marginalized communities, bearing the brunt of “outdated drug laws” and leaving previously convicted people feeling shameful and not accepted in society.
Some of the New Zealanders Hutton had spoken to said that the stigma does not go away. It was difficult for them to rejoin as a citizen again with all the negative attention their previous conviction got. As a result, most felt “depressed and anxious and stressed out,” as the shame continues to follow them long after completing their sentences.
Groups opposing the legalization of cannabis made lobbying efforts, however, was criticized for using misleading and incomplete data to support their campaign and leaning on US interference.
The opposing group that was most vocal during this time was the Say Nope to Dope campaign, which was provided information by Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a US organization also opposing the legalization of cannabis. The US group is led by Kevin Sabet, an advisor to the White House Office of National Drug Control.
Aaron Ironside, the SAM-NZ campaign leader, tells RNZ that they are “100% funded by concerned Kiwi families” after news broke out that they were allegedly receiving funding from the US organization.
“We simply went to them as a group of like-minded organizations in New Zealand and said ‘you guys have done all the homework, and you’ve done the research, would it be okay if we presented that same data under your name?’ and they said that would be fine,” Ironside adds regarding their campaign.
Nick Smith, a conservative lawmaker from the opposition National Party, said that New Zealanders have “rightly concluded that legalizing recreational cannabis would normalize it, make it more available, increase its use and cause more harm” after calling the preliminary results a “victory for common sense.”
Throughout the campaign, Hutton notes that the lives of people who were convicted of marijuana possession were upset by the continuing stigma that revolves around the issue.
“Nowhere was stigma so clear than in the advertisements of the ‘no’ campaign—based on outdated moralized notions of those who use drugs, influenced by right-wing religious groups from the US,” Hutton states.
Hutton adds that the result of the vote was “a resulting triumph for stigma, fear-mongering, and myths and a terrible blow for evidence, equity, and harm reduction.” She continues by saying the playing field was never level, and many have fought to release updated information regarding the topic amid the continuous circulation of misinformation.
“Criminalizing people for low-level drug [offenses] is damaging, that prohibition has not stopped the use of cannabis and other drugs,” Hutton writes. She continues to point out that criminalizing “did not reduce harm, has not protected young people, or those with mental health issues and addictions,” making it harder for New Zealanders to seek medical and professional help.
Those who are most affected by the country’s drug laws are the indigenous Maori who, Hutton highlights, makes up “around 16% of New Zealand’s population, but over 50% of the prison population.”
Considering the results, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has stated that there will be no further action taken to decriminalize the plant.
“I find this unforgivable—especially from a government that never really back their own bill,” Hutton said, expressing her disappointment on how the Prime Minister has handled the issue and how Ardern did not show support over the referendum until after the voting has closed. “As other countries make leaps and bounds in their drug law reforms, New Zealand seems bound to the tired and worn path of prohibition.”
Despite the disappointment, the slight margin between the votes shows that many people look forward to cannabis reform in the country.
“Even those who campaigned for a no vote noted that the current system is not working,” Hutton writes, and called the government to action by taking a stand “to enact [a] much-needed reform, to take a social justice approach to substance use, and to lead on this important issue.”
Chloe Swarbrick, a Green Party politician, promised to keep the conversation going about drug reform. In a recent debate about the referendum, she told the local news media that she is more interested in the meaningful conversations with New Zealanders “about how to reduce harm, a far more complex and nuanced debate than simple, binary chanting of ‘we will win.’”