Was New Zealand's ‘no’ vote on cannabis legalization a result of misinformation?

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Dr. Fiona Hutton, an associate professor in the Institute of Criminology at New Zealand’s Victoria University, says the ‘no’ vote on the country’s cannabis referendum is a victory for those who traffic in fear-mongering and misinformation.

Writing in The Guardian, Hutton says she been reduced to tears in the aftermath of the close vote, where 50.7 per cent of voters said ‘no’ to legal weed.

“I have been receiving heartbreaking emails from people thanking me for my work to try and get the evidence out there, to try and stem the tide of fear-mongering and misinformation about cannabis and those who use it,” she writes.

One of the loudest critical voices against the referendumbelonged to the ‘Say Nope to Dope’ campaign, which was provided information by U.S. organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). SAM is led by Kevin Sabet, an advisor to the White House Office of National Drug Control.

“We’re 100 per cent funded by concerned Kiwi families, we’ve got nothing to hide,” Aaron Ironside, leader of the SAM-NZ campaign, told RNZ in July, after allegations of receiving U.S. funding surfaced.

“We simply went to them as a group of like-minded organizations in New Zealand and said, ‘You guys have done all the homework and you’ve done the research, would it be okay if we presented that same data under your name?’ And they said that would be fine,” Ironside said.

Throughout the campaign, Hutton writes that she heard from those who had their lives upended by cannabis charges. They shared that stigma continues to follow them, long after their sentence is completed.

“Nowhere was stigma so clear than in the advertisements of the no campaign — based on outdated moralized notions of those who use drugs, influenced by right-wing religious groups from the U.S.,” Hutton notes.

“This is one of the most devastating things about the results, that the playing field was never level, that absolutely fantastic academics, community groups, organizations and campaigners, many operating on shoestring budgets, in their own time, sought to educate, to inform, to circulate evidence, to give people clear and balanced information, fought to get their voices heard in amongst swirling misinformation and misdirection. The results are a resounding triumph for stigma, fear-mongering and myths and a terrible blow for evidence, equity and harm reduction.”

Hutton highlighted that the brunt of the country’s drug laws are felt most acutely by indigenous Māori, “who make up around 16 per cent of the population, but over 50 per cent of the prison population.”

Hutton writes that she’s also disappointed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s handling of the issue. In light of the results, Ardern — who waited until voting had closed before revealing her support for the referendum — has stated there will be no further action taken to decriminalize the plant.

“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,” Hutton notes. “As other countries make leaps and bounds in their drug law reforms, New Zealand seems bound to the tired and worn path of prohibition.”

The narrow margin of defeat shows that there is an appetite for cannabis reform in the country of about 5 million people, Hutton adds. “Even those who campaigned for a no vote noted that the current system is not working,” she writes, “so now is the time for the government to take a stand, to enact much-needed reform, to take a social justice approach to substance use, and to lead on this important issue.”

Green Party politician Chloe Swarbrick has vowed to keep the conversation about drug reform going. “I am interested in more than just winning,” Swarbrick told local New Zealand media during a recent debate about the referendum. “I am interested in meaningful conversation with New Zealanders about how to reduce harm, a far more complex and nuanced debate than simple, binary chanting of ‘we will win.’”

Meanwhile, the global push for cannabis reform continues, with Mexico excepted to release its guidelines for a legal cannabis framework any week now.

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