Hope For Effective Cannabis Policy Goes Up In Smoke

Last week, the preliminary referendum results were made available to the public. The Euthanasia bill passed in a landslide, but the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill (CLCB) narrowly lost, with 53.1% of votes against.

In the opinion of the author, this bill was a matter of public health and should not have been a referendum in the first place. Referendums are typically not a clean fight in which the merits of two viewpoints are debated and judged accordingly by the public – they are mudslinging campaigns between well-funded pressure groups. Family First (FF), who led the charge against the bill, is sponsored in part by international Christian fundamentalist groups such as the World Congress for Families.

Deception is a key word to bear in our minds when examining the campaigns that have led to the result we find ourselves stuck with. The Yes Campaign was often reduced in the bourgeois press to simply ‘pot-addicts’ or ‘followers of Chlöe Swarbrick and Helen Clark,’ rather than a broad range of trade unions, health professionals and activist groups around the country. Swarbrick did quite well out of this, the national attention she received contributing to her upset victory in her electorate of Auckland Central. This mischaracterisation and reduction of the Yes Campaign serves to divert attention from the real and undeniably positive outcomes that would result were the bill passed.

Health professionals – a group whose opinion on the issue carries perhaps the most weight, were largely in favour of the legalisation (though the NZ Medical Association maintained neutrality on it). As a previous Workers’ Star editorial detailed, prohibition does not reduce harm – it increases it. The proposed changes to our existing cannabis legislation were an effective road towards reducing the harm caused by the drug. Despite all of this, the well funded and unified No Campaign managed to control the conversation and ended hopes of cannabis legalisation any time soon.

As the referendum is non-binding, and as it is in the interest of public health, Labour’s majority government could very well implement the CLCB despite the narrow loss it appears to have suffered. In all likelihood, however, they will not. 

Labour has a problem – they do very little. Our MMP electoral system, for instance, only won the backing of Labour after several elections in a row in which they won the popular vote but failed to form a government. The party seems only to support changes when they might increase their power. Jacinda Ardern revealed her vote only after polls had closed, apparently not wanting to alienate undecided voters. Ardern cared more about votes than the referendum, and that’s the result she achieved.

The great swathes of petty bourgeois small business owners who have flocked to Labour following the party’s success in COVID-19 management have ensured that Labour will walk a very narrow path for the next three years – a path right down the centre. Having neutralised the Green Party through their cooperation agreement, there exists now no left opposition in parliament. More than ever, a workers’ party is needed. Our suffrage has been used against us – referendums such as this one seem to exist only to quash hopes for change.

In the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier, Marx, along with his co-authors, argued that the creation of a workers’ party “must be pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, which will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation.”