Voters in New Zealand Approve Euthanasia, Reject Cannabis

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As of Friday, preliminary results in the Oct. 17 general election indicated a ballot measure on legalizing recreational marijuana use was set to fail.

When it comes to international cannabis policy, the spotlight is usually shining on North America.

There’s a good reason for that. As of this moment, the continent boasts one nation with a legal market (Canada), one on the precipice of establishing their own (Mexico), and a politically tumultuous collective of state-legalized markets in the U.S. While the day-to-day machinations of California alone are enough to merit close focus, other international markets — such as those in Uruguay and Israel — do of course exist.

Regardless, there’s no other concentrated geography on the globe with the volume of legal cannabis activity that’s transpiring across North America. And that’s just the legal stuff.

In any case, it’s fairly understandable that much of the media’s attention remains focused on North America, especially given its generally accepted position as a bellwether for the plant’s larger economic future. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s the only place where weed things are happening.

For example, on Oct. 17, the citizens of New Zealand held a general election in which legalizing cannabis was one of the issues on the ballot. As of Oct. 30, the New York Times reports that preliminary results suggest that the measure will likely fail, though the final tallies will not be known until Nov. 6.

As reporter Yan Zhuang noted, the unique complexity of the measure may have been a contributing factor in its eventual downfall.

“In New Zealand, the ballot measure required voters to approve not just the general principle of legalization, but also specific regulations for the creation of a legal market,” Zhuang wrote. “Fifty-three percent of voters opposed the measure, and 46 percent voted yes.”

Though the referendum was nonbinding, comments from New Zealand Justice Minister Andrew Little on Friday suggested the government would stop efforts to legalize or decriminalize cannabis as a result of the vote.

Given the close nature of the final totals — should the current numbers hold, the measure’s defeat will be narrow — some proponents are now sharing their frustrations with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who “revealed only after the referendum” that she supported it.

Speaking with the New York Times, Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University, suggested the seven-point gap might have been “a whole lot tighter” had Ardern publicly shared her support for the measure prior to the election.

“There’s a certain measure of disaffection, frustration and no small amount of anger that she’s now indicated she has this position and hasn’t clarified why she didn’t take this position before the election,” he said, specifically noting the response online to Ardern’s sluggish endorsement.

Interestingly, the other potentially controversial, health-related measure on the ballot in New Zealand passed with flying colors. Approved by 65 percent of voters, euthanasia is now legal in New Zealand.

By ratifying a referendum approved by Parliament in 2019, which required at least 50 percent support, New Zealand joins a small pool of countries in which a doctor can legally prescribe a lethal dose of medicine to patients suffering from terminal illnesses.

In that case, according to Zhuang, “the ballot question had bipartisan backing, with [Ardern’s] primary opponent in the election, Judith Collins of the center-right National Party, also expressing support.” With the euthanasia law now set to take effect on November 6, 2021, New Zealand has taken a radically progressive step forward when it comes normalizing the process of assisted dying.

If that language sounds familiar, it’s because a similar process of normalization is what will be required if New Zealand’s next ballot measure on cannabis hopes to fare better.

Speaking on behalf of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, group chairman Tuari Potiki voiced optimism for the success of a subsequent measure for legalizing cannabis, noting to the Times that his country’s current punitive approach to drugs disproportionately impacts young people and the Indigenous Maori.

His words are also a reminder that progress is ideally best perceived both as a path and as a destination.

“Although a majority of New Zealanders did not vote for the proposed model of legalization,” Potiki said, “the debate has shown a clear public desire for legal change in some form.”

Sounds like we’re going to need a bigger spotlight.

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