Hard News by Russell Brown


Reassure Me: cannabis, polling and deliberative democracy

The New Zealand Drug Foundation poll on cannabis law reform, whose results were published yesterday, is the first national poll to be conducted since the government promised a referendum on the issue. As such, it offers an insight not just into public sentiment but actual voting intentions.

I think, moreover, that it contains pointers as to what might constitute a successful referendum question, what proposition could persuade voters – and who will need persuading.

As has been widely reported, the poll shows a year-on-year jump in the public's willingness to countenance both possession and growing for personal use: from 65% to 67% for possession and, more significantly, from 55% to 65% for growing.

But those numbers need unpacking: they're a combination of the support for both decriminalisation (defined in the poll question as "it is an offence punishable only by a fine, like a speeding ticket and there is no criminal record") and legalisation. More people opted for legalisation than decriminalisation, but not many more. And while it made a bigger jump than any other answer in the poll (from 30% last year to 38%), support for selling cannabis "from a store" remains modest.

 Those responses might seem to conflict with the second question in the poll, which for the first time asks about actual referendum voting intentions. While in the first question only 35%  of respondents supported legalising possession of cannabis and 29% wanted to legalise its sale in shops, 49%, a plurality, said they would vote "in favour of legalising the sale" of cannabis in a referendum.

I think the reasonable interpretation here is that voters are more concerned about cannabis commerce than cannabis itself. The option the public has warmed to over the past year – self-growing – is probably not the one favoured by legislators and public officials. It's difficult to regulate and impossible to tax.

Perhaps New Zealanders will further warm to a cannabis retail industry as they hear the arguments and are given more detail about how such an industry would actually work. Maybe, like voters in US legal states, they will find the promise of a taxation bounty compelling. Or maybe New Zealand will find a different solution.

Cannabis Social Clubs operate in several European states, most notably in Spain, where they are regulated, non-profit private organisations – and effectively an expression of Spain's progressive decriminalisation of cannabis rather than its legalisation per se. Everybody gets the weed they want, but, in theory, there is no commercial incentive to grow the market. I know longtime cannabis advocates who would prefer this model to cannabis retail on the high street.

On the other hand, I spoke recently to the designers of the successful referendum initiatives in Califoria and Washington State. The ballot questions in those states did not emerge fully-formed: they were refined over time in response to polls and focus groups. What that research focused on more than anything was what it would take to persuade doubters. And overwhelmingly what doubters wanted was reassurance that the sky wouldn't fall. High-minded appeals to personal liberty generally fell on deaf ears.

By the lights of this weeks poll, the groups that reform advocates should concentrate most on reassuring are National Party voters – 63% of whom said they would vote against legalisation – and uncommitted voters. Clear majorities of supporters of Labour (57%), New Zealand First (68%) and the Greens (84%) said they would vote yes in a reform referendum. Uncommitted party voters were split, with 45% saying they'd vote in favour and 44% against.

There's a key difference, of course, between our referendum and the US initiatives. In the US, questions were designed by proponents, and shaped and reshaped in response to research. Ours will be the world's first national government referendum on cannabis reform and the question (or questions) will be written by the government.

We'll learn more in the next few months about how that will happen, but yesterday Justice minister Andrew Little indicated that he favoured a citizens' jury process like that created for Ireland's abortion referendum. Ireland's Citizens' Assembly was a randomly-chosen but demographically representative group of 99 people who gave up their weekends to listen to advocates and experts and, eventually, make recommendations on the shape of a draft reform bill. Whether we do this, or something more like the task force that travelled Canada to listen to arguments on that country's cannabis legalisation measures, I think it's pretty clear that a strong element of such deliberative democracy will be both necessary and desirable in the lead-up to New Zealand's world-first referendum.

In conclusion, you'll note that I haven't said anything about the medicinal cannabis part of the new poll. The already very strong support for the legalisation or decriminalisation of cannabis for pain relief is now overwhelming, with 87% in favour for chronic pain relief and 89% for people with pain associated with a terminal illness. That speaks to the timidity of the government's medical cannabis bill. But I'll pause on that until we find out what the select committee reports back – and what on earth the parliamentary National Party is up to.

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