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Cannabis and euthanasia votes bring New Zealand to moral crossroads

Referendum results due Friday after impassioned campaigns

Polling suggests New Zealanders likely voted against legalizing recreational use of cannabis.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- The general election in New Zealand may be over, with popular Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reelected in a landslide, but on two weighty issues the country is still awaiting outcomes.

After impassioned campaigns, preliminary results of referendums on decriminalizing cannabis and legalizing euthanasia will be released by the Electoral Commission on Friday, with the official numbers due Nov. 6.

The latest polling, released on the eve of the Oct. 17 election, suggests the marijuana bill is unlikely to pass while the "assisted dying" legislation has a better chance. A Newshub-Reid Research survey found 55.6% of respondents planned to vote "no" to cannabis, versus 38.3% who intended to tick "yes."

The End of Life Choice Bill showed 56.1% for and 33.4% against.

But some suggest those numbers might have shifted at the ballot boxes, given heightened political engagement among the country's youth.

Andrew Geddis, professor of law at Otago University, said the coronavirus pandemic has increased interest in politics, pointing to how voter turnout was "markedly up" in 2020. At least 82.5% of eligible voters participated, compared to 79% and 78% in the previous two elections.

"It appears that this increased turnout is the result of younger voters participating at higher rates," said Geddis, noting this led to most predictions missing the scale of Ardern's victory, which gave her Labour Party the first single-party majority in decades.

"The same may well be true of the referendum votes," he said.

The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill would allow people aged 20 and over to possess and consume the drug recreationally, in limited circumstances. It would also regulate limited growing options.

This would make New Zealand something of a trailblazer in the Asia-Pacific region, which has some of the world's strictest drug laws. New Zealand already allows medical marijuana under certain conditions, as do Australia, South Korea and Thailand. Some parts of Australia allow recreational use as well.

Geddis said that although it is "pretty likely" New Zealand's bill will fail, reform may still be in the cards. He suggested there may be room for the government to decriminalize personal cannabis possession and make it a regulatory-type issue "resulting in instant fines or referral to health authorities."

If nothing else, the referendum has established a blueprint for future reform debates.

Some in the "yes" camp support legalization as a means to tackle bias in the criminal justice system. Indigenous Maori are three times more likely to be arrested and convicted of a cannabis-related crime than non-Maori, Ardern's chief science adviser Juliet Gerrard wrote in a recent report, noting that legalizing cannabis would help correct police bias.

Others have argued alcohol is more "dangerous" to the population.

One "yes" voter in his 70s, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said most of the people he knew voted "no" because they were "frightened that there's going to be users on the road or turning up to work under the influence." But other older citizens were in favor of weed being more accessible for pain relief.

While cannabis-based medicines can be prescribed by a doctor, it is currently illegal for users to grow the plants for medical purposes.

"A lot of law-abiding people who find that the normal medication that doctors prescribe is not doing the job just prefer just to bake some cannabis cookies and find that works much better for them," said the man in his 70s. "The police are not turning up in some pensioners backyard if they've got a few plants growing, but it's still illegal."

Ardern has been tight-lipped about her stance on cannabis, claiming she does not want to influence voters by disclosing her personal views. Before the campaign, she had already publicly voted in parliament to support euthanasia.

Those who voted "no" say allowing cannabis could make New Zealand less safe.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana NZ, a "no" campaigner, argues cannabis consumption should remain a crime and that legalizing it would encourage youth drug abuse and driving under the influence.

The Cause Collective, a social change organization that focuses on the well-being of Pacific people and South Auckland Maori communities, found that the majority of those demographics had voted no, citing concerns about negative impacts on young people.

While most opinion polls have shown opposition outweighing support, the gap is relatively narrow, according to Geddis.

"With a much larger than usual youth vote at the election those polls may not be very reliable," he said. "It wouldn't surprise me at all if the issue remains in the balance right up until the final results are declared on Nov. 6."

Meanwhile, the campaign for the End of Life Choice Bill has been emotional, with "yes" advocates sharing memories of their loved ones' deaths following prolonged suffering.

New Zealander Emily McCowan, a skilled professional at a large digital consultancy in her mid 30s, voted "yes" on euthanasia on compassionate grounds.

"I think it's inhumane to make suffering humans live out their final days in pain. We wouldn't do it to our dogs and cats; we shouldn't do it to grandma," she said.

While some are opposed to the concept of euthanasia, others voting "no" are concerned about legislation they say does not do enough to safeguard the rights of vulnerable people. Paula Tesoriero, disability rights commissioner for the Human Rights Commission in New Zealand, raised concerns about coercion in a recent online post.

Dr. Mark Stewart, an academic in his early 40s who abstained from the euthanasia referendum, is hopeful the government does enact euthanasia legislation -- "just not this bill."

"[It] does not provide adequate safeguards for people who the health care system is already failing, people who might feel they are a burden, people who may not have received the palliative care they deserve because of socio-economic position," he said.

But on this referendum question, Geddis is more confident about the polls, noting that about two-thirds of the population has supported the policy consistently.

"Unless opinion polling going back some 20 years is completely wrong," he said, "the end of life choice referendum should result in a 'yes' vote."

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