New Zealanders took to the polls on Oct. 17. In addition to voting in their general election, Kiwis voted on two historic referendums to legalize recreational marijuana and another to legalize euthanasia for terminally ill patients.
Although almost half a million votes have yet to be counted, the preliminary results indicate that New Zealand’s cannabis legalization initiative was unsuccessful. The Oct. 17 election results show that 53 percent of New Zealanders voted against legalization and 46 percent in favor. However, New Zealanders voted overwhelmingly in favor of euthanasia, with 65 percent in support. NPR’s Julie McCarthy eloquently summarized the results: “New Zealand supports the right to die but rejects the right to get high.”
Expectedly, the popular New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern earned another term through a landslide victory. Despite Ardern’s September admission to having used cannabis “in the past,” she refused to divulge how she planned to vote on the referendum. On Friday, the prime minister finally confirmed that she had voted for both legalization and euthanasia.
Proponents of legalization criticized Ardern for not voicing her support sooner. Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University, told the New York Times that the seven-point gap would have likely “been a whole lot tighter had the P.M. taken the position in public that we now know she took on the ballot herself.”
Ardern suggested that if the measure ultimately doesn’t pass, drug reform is still in the near future for New Zealand.
“Regardless of the outcome of the vote, we will look at the way the Misuse of Drugs Act amendments are being applied, making sure we’ve got the addiction and treatment facilities that we need, and making sure those referrals are happening in the cases where they should,” she said on the campaign trail this month to the New Zealand Herald.
An estimated 480,000 so-called “special votes” have yet to be counted. The special votes include those of overseas citizens, those who’ve recently registered, those serving prison sentences of less than three years, and students attending schools out of districts where they are registered to vote. The uncounted votes are expected to contain roughly 17 percent of all ballots cast, and historically, special votes have leaned liberal.
The euthanasia measure is set to begin on Nov. 6 of 2021. To qualify, terminally ill patients must have “unbearable suffering that can’t be eased,” and they must voluntarily request the procedure. Two doctors will have to sign off on the decision. Euthanasia is legal in five other countries: the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Canada and Colombia. Some American states and Victoria, Australia have forms of legalized euthanasia.
Green Party lawmaker Chloe Swarbrick told Global News that the nation had “record numbers of special votes” and that she remains optimistic that the result on cannabis legalization could flip as the remaining ballots are counted.
On Friday, after the preliminary results were announced, Justice Minister Andrew Little said that “there are no other plans that we have for broader drug reform.” However, Little has admitted that prohibition doesn’t work.
“Up to 80 percent of New Zealanders are saying in surveys that they have at some time in their lives tried cannabis,” Little said. “Prohibition is not prohibiting cannabis. It’s in our communities, so it is time to decide on whether to control it.”
The justice minister said that the bill’s passage is “highly unlikely.” He added that it would require roughly 70 percent of the special votes to be in favor for the referendum to pass.