50.7% to 48.4%. Our nation has spoken and voted not to legalise cannabis – but not by much. So, what happens now? Firstly, recreational cannabis remains illegal. The debate during the campaign was tough as community advocates from both sides argued about the evidence and the rights and wrongs of legalisation. And it went right down to the wire. It was a good debate to have as a nation and this is not the end of the road. It is possible that advocates for legalisation will try another pathway like a private member’s bill to try to get to the goal of legalisation.
Secondly, the question now is whether decriminalisation of cannabis is now on the agenda? Both NO and YES campaigners did come to some sort of agreement that change is needed in this space. Some would argue that we have quasi-decriminalisation already in NZ. For example, in the justice aspect, YES campaigners stressed that Māori were three times more likely to be arrested and convicted of a cannabis-related crime than non-Māori. In response, the NO side pointed to recent Ministry of Justice statistics that over the last decade, there was a 63% drop in cannabis charges for all Kiwis, the number of Maori facing cannabis charges declined by 57%,and Maori convicted for cannabis declined by about 60% last decade. Major shifts are clearly already happening. So, in the criminal justice, health, addictions treatment and other relevant sectors, what could, or should decriminalisation look like?
Moving forward, The Salvation Army calls for robust and balanced discussions to continue from all sides involved in this debate. And pivotal to this discussion must be addictions treatment and health services. They are the experts. And they can help ensure the person/client remains the centre of this debate, so it is not captured by any political, media or ideological interests. We need the courage for proper conversations moving forward. Our nation has signalled legalisation is not an option, but other changes might be needed.
In contrast to the cannabis referendum, the End of Life Choice referendum has produced a very clear result endorsing the Act to come into force in one year’s time (November 2021). The Salvation Army and many other groups and individuals opposed the Act. Regardless of what people think on the moral issue of assisted dying, the major concern with the actual EOLC Act is the lack of safeguards included in the Act to protect those who are vulnerable, including older people and those struggling with mental illness.
The next year leading up to the implementation of the Act is a crucial time to seek the maximum protections possible under the new law and attempt to mitigate the risks. We will need to work out what can be done to help identify those who are being pressured into decisions, or those who really have not exhausted all other options for help and assistance before seeking assisted dying. Doctors and other medical professionals are going to need much more training and upskilling in responding to people in these situations.
Better access to high quality palliative care for people with terminal illnesses will help. We have a very good system of end-of-life care at present but it does not reach all communities or meet all the needs of different groups and cultures. Government resourcing of this sector has to improve.
The referendum is not the end of the issue, but it is a social milestone. We have opened the door more widely than is wise at this stage in our society. For those of us who believe every life is embued with dignity and worthy of love, the months and years ahead will require us to be active in reaching out to those needing help and vigilant in ensuring that safeguards are effective and ethical boundaries are respected. This is not a job for ‘someone else’ to do – we all need to take responsibility to do the best we can.
By Ronji Tanielu Principal Policy Analyst, and Paul Barber, Senior Social Policy Analyst