Election 2020: Damien Venuto: History shows the cannabis result is far from over


The results released today on the cannabis referendum are by no means the final say we’ll have on the matter.

As we wait for the 480,000 special votes to be counted, the issue still hangs in the balance with 53 per cent have voted against and 46 per cent for. To be flip the result, you’d need just over two-thirds of those special votes to come on the affirmative side.

There’s an interesting precedent on flipped votes in the historical battle over alcohol prohibition.

Between 1911 and 1987, New Zealand held 24 referenda on whether alcohol should be banned. In 1911, prohibition attracted a mammoth 55.8 per cent of the vote and only failed to pass because the threshold was set at 60 per cent.

By 1919, the threshold was dropped to 50 per cent and New Zealand came to within a whisker of prohibition as 49 per cent of the public voted in support of it. The temperance movement actually thought they had won the battle until the votes of 40,000 troops still overseas marched in to spoil the champagne-free party.

The parallels of how a referendum can swing are obvious, but the other learning from this is that a referendum, whether binding or not, can be used as a helpful indicator of the mood of the nation – and there’s no reason why the government can’t run another referendum at the next election or even the one thereafter. Keeping its finger on the nation’s pulse will be important in ensuring that stance taken doesn’t fall out of rhythm with what the nation wants.

Hindsight now tells us that legalising and regulating alcohol was a serendipitous choice, which precluded us from the misfortune of years of gang control as was the case in the United States. The other benefit in legalising and regulating a taboo market that’s widely accepted is that it allows for tax money collected to be filtered back into treatment programmes for those who misuse the products.

We can always argue about whether there’s enough money being put into these, but an unregulated market means that any money will have to be taken from elsewhere – and this hits the nerve of what this vote is actually about.

Just because a large contingent of people consider something morally reprehensible doesn’t mean it should be illegal.

You might disagree with the use of cigarettes, pornography, gambling or alcohol but it takes a strong leap toward personal restriction to argue that any of these activities should be banned outright. And yet, if we were to hold a referendum on any of these issues, you could bet there’d be a strong divide.

Over the last few months, we’ve often seen the recreational cannabis debate reduced to a moral dilemma, framed as a good versus evil battle that pits progressives against conservatives as a purple haze hangs over the nation.

This issue isn’t about whether cannabis is ethically right or wrong. It’s also not about right versus left or liberal versus conservative.

Beneath all the noise and partisan grandstanding, this vote has always been about market control – and where we’d rather see it.

The recreational cannabis market already exists. It’s controlled by illicit bootleggers who trade out their garages, using Whatsapp groups to update their eager customer base. They operate in the shadows, contribute nothing to tax and aren’t beholden to any quality standards designed to keep the consumer safe.

Voting ‘no’ in the referendum was never going to make this disappear. At best, it would keep the status quo and leave police with the same headache of how best to control the continued use of the substance.

Voting ‘yes’ wouldn’t necessarily have fixed things either. Even if the special votes do come in on the affirmative side, we’re still in for months of hashing out the rules that will ultimately regulate the industry.

The expectation on the government will be to create strict rules that protect the public, but the flip side of erring on the side of restrictions that are too militant is that it could remove the incentive for consumers to shift their habits from the black market to legal sellers.

It will be a tough balance for any government to strike, particularly amid the strong opinions being expressed on both sides of the debate.

The one thing that’s clear is that a no vote isn’t going to stop the many Kiwis who use cannabis from lighting up this weekend.

The only question that remains is whether they might be able to get the product from a legal source in the future – and it’s anyone’s guess when that might be.

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