Hard News by Russell Brown


Splore Listening Lounge 2020: the road to a "yes" vote

As far as anyone can say, New Zeaand still has a general election scheduled for September 19 this year. The election will be accompanied by two referenda, one of which will ask voters:

Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?

The official campaign period for the cannabis referendum begins three months out from the election date, but more or less formal campaigns have been operating since late 2018.

As part of the Listening Lounge programme at the Splore festival on February 22, I talked to representatives of the two major campaigns for a "Yes" vote: Renee Shingles of Health Not Handcuffs, the New Zealand Drug Foundation's campaign; and longtime weed warrior Chris Fowlie talking about Make It Legal (nb: although Chris was part of founding the campaign, he's not a Make It Legal spokesperson, those are Sandra Murray and Nandor Tanczos).

Renee, Health Not Handcuffs is the Drug Foundation's campaign. When did you join it and where are you at with it?

R: I joined mid-November, and I have been working ever since, not really stopping. We have been using this time to build the ground game, get out there, talk to people. We've done some research as well, to have an understanding where people's heads are at on this topic, and that was a 1600 sample with two focus groups in Auckland and two focus groups in Christchurch. That's just given us an idea of the level of knowledge people have, where our issues may be in the campaign, and also what they think about it. How they think about it. How they think about the policy.

So what's the short version of that, what do people know and what do they think at the moment? Because, let's be honest, the polls don't look terribly encouraging.

R: Public polls change as per media cycles, so one week you have Paula Bennett up there speaking to a certain bunch of people [giving] a bunch of misinformation. People might be, yeah, nah, I don't want to vote for that. You give them some actual information, which is what we did in our research, and people see that it's a really responsible piece of policy. I mean it's focused on harm reduction, not commercialisation like North America's done.

So this is a really beautiful piece of policy, and when people see that they see it's stronger than alcohol, it's stronger than alcohol and tobacco put together, and I think it gives people a bit of confidence. They understand that prohibition's not working. They know it's easy to access. So that's where people's heads are at the moment. They do have a few issues – what does this mean, what does this look like in my community – but when we actually speak to them about the policy, they actually look at it quite logically, and they're like, yeah, this actually makes sense.

So it can work to talk to people about policy? Because I often feel like such a wonk. Someone says, well I might be interested if there were proper safeguards. I'm like, have you read the draft bill? There's no advertising, no marketing, it's R20. Chris, does it matter that at the moment a lot of people don't really know what's going to happen?

C: Yeah, to an extent, yes, because if it was purely about facts and figures, we would have won this a long time ago. The evidence has been on the side of cannabis law reform forever. So clearly facts and figures alone aren't going to do it, and people kind of zone out. People are quite good, it's just human behaviour, if you don't believe the facts you just don't believe it.

So part of what we're trying to do with our campaign is recognising that we have a really solid core level of support that we see in all these polls, and that's possibly 30%, maybe more. Our role there is to really motivate people. Don't lose faith, make sure you're actually enrolled and voting is the key thing. Amongst our support a bigger influence is going to be the actual turnout, how many people are actually enrolled and voting on the day, as compared to how many people get talked out of it as such.

Make It Legal's been running for over a year now hasn't it?

C: Yeah and so we've done things like markets and things like that, and to an extent that is a bit preaching to the converted, and so we're trying, with the Drug Foundation, to reach more out into the mainstream, but we also see in our role that we have to maintain contact with our supporters so that they see there's activity going on and that we're motivating them and they're not getting, buying into any negativity.

And of course one of our roles is cajoling people that support law reform but for one reason or another there might be an aspect, a detail about the bill that they don't like, and like you say, they haven't even read it. It is a 69-page bill and it's only half-written. So there's these huge gaps in it, you think, when they fill that up it's going to be a 100-page bill, and no one's going to read that. It's kind of our job to explain these things.

I think what recent election campaigns have shown, Trump and Brexit and ScoMo in Aussie and things like that, is that it's not facts and figures, it's feelings. So yes, on the one hand we have to maintain our credibility, but it's a bit of a trap to get too hung up on facts and figures, cause we always want to say things that are correct and true, but the other side don't, and it seems to be working for them. They say really outrageous things and part of that tactic is that it's bait. The progressives and the Left take the bait and we spread their stories and we reply to their comments and we escalate them and we give them more coverage. And that's a definite strategy on their part, is to actually say completely wrong, incorrect things.

Trolling for reach, it's called. Renee, I'm interested in this idea of feelings over facts, because you have in the past worked for Crosby Textor, who are really good at determining and at times changing the public mood. What's the trick there?

R: I think it's understanding where people's heads are at. It's not about manipulating people, it's about leaning in to where the public perception and opinion already is. So both Chris and I, and you, will probably continue hammering that prohibition doesn't work. People know this. Most people in New Zealand have smoked weed at some point. And they've easily accessed it. They've started when they were 13, 14, 15, they went to their tinny house. It was much easier to access than it was anything else.

Everyone knows that, so leaning into that and really making that personal relevance, reminding people in that middle area of that personal relevance – because the thing is there's a group of people that are very passionate about this, it's probably more personally relevant to them than the people that did it a couple of times during uni and then went and got a job and had kids and all.

This issue, drug reform is an issue that touches everyone. So it's not about making this issue divisive, but it's about leaning into what other issues this touches in their life. So when you look at the top issues that most people have, it's job security, it's health services. So when you're talking about this, you need to find a way to link it to that, and make them look at it how that looks in their world. If you have children, what does this mean for them? Is there going to be coffee shops around the corner everywhere? Am I doing a responsible thing? Am I making a responsible decision for them? That is the decision. So when we're having conversations about this, we need to look at it not from our perspective but from their perspective, and that's what research does for us.

Chris, I actually talked to the people who helped design the successful propositions in California and Washington state, and what they discovered was that appeals to liberty went nowhere, even in America, but what people wanted was reassurance, and they wanted that in some detail. If you look at Proposition 64 in California, it's over 100,000 words, no one's read it, but they wanted to know it was there. So we've got an equivalent to that with this draft bill which is nearly completed. At the time I was talking to them, people here were saying Family First was irrelevant – but they've got money. How big a factor is money going to be in this referendum campaign?

C: It's going to be pretty big. We have a spending limit that I don't think we're in any danger of meeting. It's $300,000 in the three months leading up to the referendum. But we really are not getting much, so it's work over money and it's just sweat equity. There's a lot that people can do without money, but money would be awesome too, and especially now that we're in this phase where we really want to start rolling out signage and billboards even, little signs that people can put on their fences and bumper stickers and all these sorts of things, they all cost money. Money is going to be a thing. But it is interesting that the No campaign does seem to be so well funded. It's the opposite of how it's been in America, where the Yes campaigns and ballots in US states have had millions of dollars and usually a few billionaires putting it in, and the No campaign has been really underfunded. Here it seems the opposite.

How are your two campaigns going to work together, and are there other friendly campaigns likely to emerge?

C: I think there's going to be a whole bunch of grassroots ones. One of the issues I think for everyone in the Yes campaign is coordinating that and making sure that we're all on the same page and going in the same direction. We all come from this point of agreement, we all want the law to change, and that's what we're trying to get to the public as well.

R: I think the interesting thing about this particular issue, and it's what's relevant in most issues campaigning, is that you're not just looking at one group of people. This is relevant to a lot of different areas that we struggle with in social issues right now.

You're looking at youth, this is a massive issue for youth. Especially when you add in to the fact that this is actually going to be an opportunity to activate a group of people that historically are disenfranchised by the political system. They don't feel that there's anything that's relevant to them, they don't feel that it's an issue that's worth them getting out of bed and voting for. This is going to change that. If we get a Yes in October, cannabis is legalised.

It's something that's going to affect every single one of us. With uner-30s, it's very hard to go to the polling booth and look at all these issues like child education and go, 'This is relevant to me', because the fact is in three years' time you could get another government and that could be gone. Whereas this is not an issue that does that. You get a yes, it's legalised, and you know what? We voted on change.

C: I just want to really emphasise that too. I think that this, a cannabis referendum, it's not just of interest to policy wonks like us, but it really does have the potential to bring out a whole lot of people to vote who don't normally vote. For many of them it could be the first time ever. And once people get engaged in the political process, they're more likely to carry on and have those habits for the rest of their lives. And likewise if they start off by not voting they might continue not voting forever.

So this actually has this potential to really transform voter behaviour here. That's what it's done in American ballots. And in particular, cannabis law reform ballots in America have brought out supporters, non-voters, who tend to vote for progressive and left-leaning candidates in parties at the same time. And so if we think about this election, in my dream-land, it means that perhaps the next government is a Labour-Green government, that they actually get enough MPs because of the turnout from the cannabis referendum to govern alone. Under that situation we could see the sorts of reform that we were hearing about with the pill testing, you know, that could just happen. We could see a whole bunch of really good things. We could start to see psychedelic reform. Reform for MDMA. We could start to see therapeutic uses of other drugs. This is like the next stage after cannabis is legalised.

I don't want to freak people out and say that it's a wedge and we're just going to open up the door to everything, but let's face it, there are other issues that need reforming after this, and once we get cannabis law reform out of the way, if we have a more progressive government, partly as a result of that referendum, then we could see really good reforms in the next term of government

R: I just want to add as well that this is a recommendation that's been made by two pretty serious reports that have come out, the Justice and the Mental Health inquiry. Both of those came out and one of the recommendations was to legalise. So there are bodies behind this that are recognising that there is a lot of social issues that are happening and this particular piece of legislation could not only address some of those, it could fund resources that can help people that need support the most.

Chris, one thing that I did want to ask about, and you'll be acutely aware of this: there are a few old-school weed warriors who are all 'We don't need no stinking referendum', or are claiming they're going to vote no. What's going on with that?

C: This is I guess part of our internal campaigning I guess, is to bring all those people on side. This happens everywhere that cannabis law reform happens, is some people want it to be treated like a vegetable, with no rules whatsoever. But then again, even vegetables have rules around food safety and things.

Some people want no rules, or they want the government to – I was at a meeting with the Ministry of Health this week and people were demanding that the government guarantee their business: we'll only enter the medical cannabis industry if you guarantee I'll make profits. And they're like, we don't do that. People need to get realistic with what they want.

We all have to recognise that anything would be better than the current law, and so even if there's a part of the referendum that you think, I don't really like the way they're doing that, too bad. Hold your nose, vote for it. And if you've got people in your life that are still complaining, shut them up. And if you're on social media complaining about it, go away. We actually need to give people hope and motivation, not be turning people off. And so part of our thing is reassuring people that hey, there might be a detail about it that isn't perfect, but that's what we change afterwards. We get this through, then we keep working and we make it better. And that is going to happen regardless.

R: It's much easier to reform than it is to introduce.

Yes. Start low, go slow. One thing I wonder if is if it doesn't pass, what the environment will look like, because I think we're in an era where the police have decided they no longer want to prosecute cannabis – it's not a driver of other crime, there are better uses of their resources. And I wonder if we're going to get a messy, decriminalised space like some of the US states had. The thing about those periods is that that was when youth use did rise. As soon as legalisation came in, youth use either stopped rising or it decreased. I think that's quite a powerful thing to point out to people.

C: I think so. You do see the proper decreases in youth use when it's properly legalised, not done in a half-arsed way, and I think a lot of police, that's the position that they take, is to do it properly and not be half-arse. And police have a lot of credibility in this, so it's really important for us that we listen to their concerns, but we also get perhaps some retired police to start talking out on these issues.

But also, the other thing, you touched on it before, about where we can put the revenue from this. And this is one thing I just wanted to briefly mention, and that's that there's a part of the referendum bill that hasn't been written yet, and that's to do with how the licensing and how the market is actually set up and allocated.

Market allocation.

C: Market allocation, and it refers to it in one line and it says they shall have regard to social equity provisions, and they haven't been detailed. In my mind it's one of the best parts of the bill. Social equity when it applies to cannabis is talking about the fairness of the licensing regime and letting people in who have borne the brunt of the drug war, letting people in whose lives have been ruined, and rather than locking them out and saying no convictions and you can't have a license, doing the opposite.

In Illinois, they give you bonus points towards your license if you employ people with a drug record. If the owners of your business have drug convictions, you get bonus points as well. So if you don't have that conviction, you go and find someone who has and you employ them, and now you're ahead in the licensing. It's a really effective way to actually draw people in from the illicit market instead of shouting and complaining from the outside about being locked out, they're actually encouraged and supported to come in. And this is something I know the Ministry of Justice are really actively looking at, they're not just going to do lip service, I think we're actually going to get some really good things happening there.

Re: The tax redistribution into harm minimisation, education health and programs as well, like, this is a piece of policy worth frothing over. It's a great piece of policy.

So Chris, what's your impression, what are we looking at? There'll be full-profit licenses and non-profit licenses? 

C: Yeah, there's no restriction on your profit, but you can be a non-profit – you can be either. There'll be takeaway stores like bottle shops, and then there'll be licensed premises. There's a question mark over whether they can be next to each other or related or owned by the same people, they might want some separation. They've also put in a separation so you can't be a grower producer and a retailer. So you can't do the full vertical integration model where you get the really large corporates in America.

Which is what they've done in Mexico, and it makes sense. Because that's the other thing people are worried about, is Big Cannabis.

C: Yes, exactly. We're seeing it with medical, right? And medical's the opposite, medical, they want big cannabis. That's how the pharmaceutical industry works. And as I say, at this meeting we went to with the Ministry, someone said, how are you going to get the illicit people to get involved in this, and they said, that's not our job. It's not a goal of the medical scheme to involve the illicit economy. So all the green fairies and the people that are growing medical cannabis illicitly, they're locked out, they can't get in. Under the cannabis referendum, that is a goal. And so we will see parts of the policy that are actively trying to bring people in from the shadows and even give them compensation from the revenues and from the taxes.

Just to wrap, what can we expect to see between now and September? Renee, you're going to have TV advertising?

R: If we get funding, yeah.

If you get funding. Fingers crossed for that.

R: As Chris said, at the moment, we're both just working off the kindness of people donating. Our opposition is going to be doing that. Our opposition are already doing it and it's really, you guys have probably seen the gummy bears, which is just ridiculous. They're doing it, and we are going to have to respond but it's really going to come down to resources.

I talked to Sandra Murray, who's your coordinator. She seemed to have spent the past year setting up the networks. You're going to take quite a local grass-roots sort of approach, aren't you?

C: Yeah, we have local groups all around the country in at least a dozen cities now, and doing things every weekend. We're just trying to get the visibility up, getting people enrolled to vote, just keeping it in their mind. The Drug Foundation does very well focusing on the middle ground, middle New Zealand that is the key part. And I think our key part is focusing on the non-voters or the unenrolled people and really increasing our turnout there.

I had a little thought when you said how is this going to look, and I just wanted to paint a picture of what Splore could look like. Temporary special events licenses are possible under the referendum scheme. We had a little conversation before, they're not going to allow mobile licenses, I'm not quite sure, but assuming we get to the bottom of that, Splore potentially could have an actual cannabis license next year, and that's just an example of how things could change. So festivals and events that you go to, instead of revolving around alcohol sales, I'm not saying they all do or that this one does, but alcohol sponsorship's a very big part of paying the bills, and perhaps you might see that festivals could go alcohol-free and be cannabis festivals.

I wouldn't mind that.

C: And what I'm wondering here is how the drug squad is going to look in future. So this is the other thing you're voting for, is friendly police. The future drug squad, instead of taking your drugs, they'll be going, here have a joint, calm down, to the person that's a bit too full on, or, get that tested, make sure you're safe. So vote for friendly police.

Last word?

R: Our ground game's let's talk weed, because people really love to talk about cannabis. And they have a license to now, so I would say that we do have at the Drug Foundation, we're going to have a very balanced informed campaign. But Health Not Handcuffs is focused on telling people to talk about this. Because our biggest thing that we're up against right now is stigma. And if we continue hiding away from having this conversation, we're not going to get anywhere. We have a license to talk about this now. Let's do it.

[Audience question then audience show of hands on who would consume more or less cannabis if it was legalised. Most people indicate their consumption would remain about the same.]

The experience in the US has been that there has been a modest increase everywhere it's been legalised, and it's all old people. All the US states, and Canada, there's been a three to five percent bump in the number of people using cannabis – and it's all people over 40.

R: This week we got results from Canada that youth, 15-17, dropped by half. So it's official, weed is no longer cool in Canada.

That's maybe the most striking thing, if you're ever discussing it with someone – point out that in all the places that have legalised, youth use has either stabilised or decreased, and old people are getting high.

C: And the old people are often doing it for therapeutic reasons. And that's actually one of the main reasons, one of the best arguments you can have is to someone who's sitting on the fences, why they should vote yes, is that's the way most people will obtain medical cannabis. 

They actually won't get it through the medical cannabis scheme, cause it's going to be super-tight. I know this, because I'm intimately involved in it. I actually have a license to grow high-THC cannabis from the government. Shows you how far we've come, that I've got that license. But I tell you, it's going to be super-tough and most patients are actually not going to obtain medical cannabis through the medical cannabis scheme, especially for low-level things, aches and pains. But make cannabis legal, and that's how most people get it.

Thanks to Emma Hart for the transcript.

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