Did The Cannabis Referendum Affect Labour’s Slump?

February 13 2024 – Guest Blogger

Did The Cannabis Referendum Affect Labour’s Slump?
Did The Cannabis Referendum Affect Labour’s Slump?

Guest blogger Trismegistus considers whether the Cannabis Referendum may have contributed to Labour loosing the 2023 election.

Back in the 2020 election the New Zealand Labour party won a historic victory. They achieved an unprecedented outright majority, meaning that they could govern alone without needing the Green Party as a coalition partner. Then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was still basking in a glow of popularity and public approval ratings which were at record highs.


It's extraordinary then, that when the election year of 2023 arrived, the mood of the nation had reversed so much that Ardern saw the writing on the wall. She decided she had had enough of the job, and was off to a different one - overseas at Harvard University. Labour has been punished by voters at this election. Their support was cut in half, the defeat was total and crushing, so what happened?


Plenty of post-mortem analysis has gone down. In this article political commentator Bryce Edwards offers ten reasons for the public souring towards Labour. A pandemic response that has left a bad taste, housing policy failure, inflation and the rising cost of living, multiple problems in all sectors, lack of a plan, policies, or even party identity, too much focus on identity politics and co-governance issues, arrogance, out of touch, etc.


But there is another reason for Labour's loss that I'd like to throw on the bonfire. We had a referendum at the same time as the 2020 election, on whether or not to legalize cannabis. The no vote won, but by a strikingly narrow margin: 50.7% vs 48.4% The referendum was organized and promoted by the Green party, who had been Labour's coalition government partner. During the election campaign the major parties were of course asked their position on the issue. Predictably the main conservative on the right, the National Party argued against legalizing, but Labour, which had come into power in 2017 on a campaign promising transformation, progress, and change, took a rather curious, and disappointing position.


When asked, Labour's position was that they had no position. Their given reason was that this was a Green party initiative, implying that they had no obligation to have a position, and moreover, they wanted people to make their own choice on the matter, because it was a "conscience issue", without being influenced by the opinion of the Labour party.


Both reasons are weak. First, Labour might have no obligation to the Green party, but why would they not want to support the referendum for badly needed cannabis reform? No reason was ever given. Second, Labour had no problem offering their opinion on the euthanasia referendum which was run at the same time. It's true that that was Labour's project, but how exactly the right to puff weed is more of a personal conscience issue than the right to pull grandma's plug I'm not sure. The result of the referendum was so close that support for the yes camp from Ardern and the Labour Party would surely have reversed the result. Even published research agrees: "The self-imposed neutrality of the center-left Labour Party and its popular leader may have been a decisive factor in the narrow defeat"


What about the obligation to the New Zealand people? All manner of experts have been crying out for reform on this issue. After the negative result, the associate professor of criminology at Victoria University Dr. Fiona Hutton wrote an opinion piece published in the The Guardian where she pulled no punches. Entitled, 'New Zealand's rejection of legalizing cannabis is a triumph for fear-mongering', Hutton explains that she was reduced to tears thinking of the lost opportunity to reform laws that have caused decades of harm and still do. In particular, she mentioned the psychological damage a drug conviction can do to a human being via stigma and shame. This is real pain for many New Zealanders which was always unnecessary. She mentions the mountain of long-term evidence showing that the current prohibitionist approach has not only failed, but that it causes more harm to society than the supposed problem. This leads her to point out that the playing field for this debate was never level, as evidenced by the fact that fear and misinformation won. She also states her feelings about Labour's stance:


"However, I am also angered at the inadequate and underwhelming governmental response to the result. Jacinda Ardern stated that there will be "no attempt by Labour to legalize or decriminalize cannabis in the light of the referendum result," and I find this unforgivable – especially from a government that never really backed their own bill, and have dropped the idea of reform like the political hotcake it sadly remains."


Unforgivable is a strong word, but is it not deserved for a government that disregards suffering for party political reasons? After the result the then Labour health minister Andrew Little when pressed said that Labour felt that the current cannabis laws were "doing the job". Which is a rather trite way to dismiss overwhelming evidence that says differently. One is left to wonder if he meant that the status quo is working fine for the Labour Party. They delayed the release of a report showing that hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders regularly use cannabis until voting had nearly finished. That doesn't sound neutral, that sounds like they didn't want the public to make an informed decision. That sounds like they preferred that the referendum would fail.


The bottom line is that we elect a government to provide leadership, to be surrounded by experts to consult so that they can make policy based on sound evidence. But when it comes to cannabis it seems that both National and Labour are unable to do that. They go against evidence and expert advice, cannot talk sensibly about it, and clearly don't like talking about it at all.


Voters don't like to have their intelligence insulted. The gap between reality and cannabis policy in NZ has always been stark to anyone who has looked, but the referendum was another blow to the credibility of the Ardern Labour government. I suspect that because cannabis law reform likely ranks lower as a priority on people's list of issues that they want fixed in this country, Labour made the mistake of thinking that that meant that people didn't really care that much about it, even though they would surely know that left-leaning voters are statistically more likely to support cannabis reform.


I think that people did care about it. While I'm not claiming it was as big a reason for Labour's defeat as certain others, it presented a clear message to the public that despite presenting itself as a progressive force for change, Labour did not want progress or change on this issue.


But there is a twist in the tale. Multiple pieces of research are now strongly suggesting that cannabis possesses excellent anti-viral properties for certain types of viruses including, wait for it, coronaviruses.


In this study researchers found that CBD can block the replication of the covid virus, a stunning result they were not expecting. This one found strikingly lower rates of mortality, hospitalization, and other negative outcomes among cannabis users. This one found the same, as did this recent study from Hawaii which looked at data from more than 300,000 patients.


So at the time of a pandemic, the Labour Party worked against allowing us to have access to a natural anti-viral medicine known to be safe, and has now been shown to be effective. In contrast, ongoing research into the safety and efficacy of the synthetic compound that we were coerced and 'nudged' into having injected into our arms, whose composition is an industrial secret, continues to raise concerning or even disturbing results. Cannabis does not cause inflammation of the heart muscle and cardiac problems. One has to marvel at the level of ignorance, corruption, and general perversion of truth in our society, when a rushed, novel technology substance, is aggressively pushed on an entire population, while nature's medicine pill, known to be such to numerous cultures around the globe for thousands of years, is illegal.


The backbone of our drug policy is the 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act. It is a relic of the Nixon-era drug war. That war was made from lies and its purpose was to do with power and suppressing public dissent for government policies. Concern for public health was simply a smokescreen. Nearly fifty years later, these facts are well known by drug experts and students of politics. Thus any Party that does not advocate for a total repeal and replace job for the Act is a party that now has a serious credibility problem. Yet Labour and National to this day prefer the failed and damaging status quo, and so continue to display their inability or unwillingness to do what is right for our people because politics.


During its time in power, Labour showed no interest in fixing a serious problem that successive governments have avoided as a matter of course. And when given the chance by the Greens to support real and positive change, they did the opposite. Just like Fiona Hutton, I found that unforgivable. I wonder how many other progressive, left-leaning voters felt the same. Thanks to this egregious failure of leadership, cannabis reform has been set back for years.


Meanwhile, twenty-four US states have legalized, Canada has legalized, The Thai government announced it will send one million cannabis plants to domestic households, Germany will legalize it this year, Uraguay already has. Australian cannabis reform is happening and is already much further ahead. The list of countries that have at least decriminalized it is too long to get into. Yet in NZ the law still says that if you possess this plant the boys in blue have the power to wreck your life. Don't worry says, Labour, it's at their 'discretion'. Until the law changes cannabis users cannot be fully accepted members of society. We may yet have to confront the uncomfortable possibility that it says something about us as a culture that we are now dragging our feet so far behind the rest of the world. The psychological reasons run deep and are a subject for another day.


As far as New Zealand politics goes though, any party for whom the Misuse of Drugs Act is "doing the job" is not a party that can be taken seriously by the generations of today or tomorrow.


After nearly one hundred years of the insane war on cannabis, and more than fifty years of the dehumanizing war on drugs, the two main parties in this country are still unable to speak sensibly about the subject. They refuse to base their policy on the clear evidence that has conspicuously piled up over the last few decades. Anti-evidence policy is politically based policy. We need actual leaders who can rise above politics, tell the people the truth, and give us what we need.

This article was written by guest blogger: Trismegistus.

Trismegistus is a philosopher, musician, writer, and psychonaut.

Sometimes guest writers contribute to our blog here at MindFuel. These writers come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, making their knowledge invaluable. Please be aware that the views and opinions expressed by our guest bloggers may not reflect the views and opinions of MindFuel.  Read more about our writers.



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