Francesca Rudkin: Referendum results have massive consequences

Author
Francesca Rudkin,
Publish Date
Sun, 1 Nov 2020, 10:06AM
(Photo / NZ Herald)

Francesca Rudkin: Referendum results have massive consequences

Author
Francesca Rudkin,
Publish Date
Sun, 1 Nov 2020, 10:06AM

On Friday the provisional results of our two referendums were announced - 65.2 percent of us overwhelmingly supporting the End of Life Choice referendum, with 53.1 percent saying no to the Cannabis Legalisation and Control referendum.

While many celebrated or commiserated on Friday afternoon as the preliminary results were released, I did neither, I just felt a bit empty.

I don’t know about you, but deciding how I would vote on both the End of Life Choice Bill and the Cannabis Legalisation and Control referendums was much harder than casting my party and local electorate votes in the general election.

Plenty of research went into my choices, but even now I’m not sure I got it right. What I mean, I think, is that we still have plenty of work to do to make sure each of these decisions is proved right.

The End of Life Choice Bill had of course already been debated in parliament. We had time to absorb the information, understand the bill, and hear a variety of experiences and opinions from all sides of the debate. It was probably a more considered decision.

Friday’s result was a relief to many suffering terrible, terminal illnesses, and to those who have had to watch their loved ones suffer in unimaginable ways.

I’m not convinced the law is as tight and protective of people as it could be, and I would have liked to see more resources and respect given to palliative care in New Zealand before we got to this stage, but I understand the need for others to have the choice.

The vote to legalise and control cannabis was much closer – and the bill was yet to be debated in Parliament or go through select committee process. While we had an idea of how the law might look – you have to be over 20 to partake, can buy up to 14 grams of dried cannabis per day, must consume it on private property or at a licensed premise, you could grow up to two plants, etc. - I did wonder whether some people were concerned how this bill would end up looking and lacked the certainty they needed to vote yes.

Such a close call makes it difficult for the government.

A sizable portion of voters clearly want the government to undertake cannabis law reform. You simply can’t ignore the health and justice issues that have come to light by glibly saying that the people have spoken.

If this government really cares about the wellbeing of our youth, our mental health and vulnerable members of society, it will find other ways to improve the system. The big question is how far will the Labour government push this before becoming concerned about losing voters?

Not very far by the sound of things.

The have ruled out wider drug law reforms in the foreseeable future, but Andrew Little says current drug laws will be reviewed to ensure that people whose worst offense is drug possession are “almost automatically” given a health referral rather than having to face prosecution.

According to police data, only about 10.7 per cent of people caught by police are given a health referral.

Perhaps we need a clearer interpretation of the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act 2019 which formally directed the police not to arrest and prosecute for use and supply.

I can’t help but think the referendum asked the wrong question.

If the question had been to decriminalise rather than legalise I suspect more people would have come on board.

There are almost half a million special votes still to be counted, but as Heather du Pleiss Allen pointed out on Friday afternoon, 67 % of those votes would have to tick yes to legalisation for the provisional referendum result to be overturned - which seems a stretch.

So, why did I feel flat on Friday? Why did I not celebrate the fact things have gone the way I wanted?

I think it’s because we won’t know if we made the best decisions for sure for some time – and the consequences are simply massive.

The work to make sure we’re proved right starts now, and there is much to be done. We must protect the vulnerable and be cautious when it comes to enacting the End of Life Choice bill. And regardless of how you voted on the Cannabis Legalisation and Control question, I think we can agree we must do better with how we deal with cannabis use - from both a justice and health point of view.