A New Zealand referendum to legalize marijuana is trailing, according to preliminary election results released on Friday. But with hundreds of thousands of ballots remaining to be counted, the final outcome won’t be known until late next week.
Polls in the country closed on October 17, but elections officials don’t count referendum votes on election night. Instead, the preliminary results were tallied over the subsequent days and released Friday afternoon local time in New Zealand, with final results expected to be announced on November 6.
According to the initial election data, forty-six percent—1,114,485 people—voted for the referendum and 53 percent—1,281,818 people—were against it.
But the final outcome is still unknown. The early numbers don’t include an estimated 480,000 or more so-called special votes, which are expected to account for roughly 17 percent of all cast ballots. The category includes votes by citizens overseas, those who only recently registered to vote as well as people serving prison sentences of less than three years. It also includes students who are attending schools out of the districts where they are normally registered to vote.
— Electoral Commission | Te Kaitiaki Take Kōwhiri (@ElectoralCommNZ) October 30, 2020
Observers expect the special votes will be disproportionately in favor of legalization, which means the measure may still have a chance of passage.
Still, according to Justice Minister Andrew Little, it is “highly unlikely” that the result will flip when all is said and done. “For the cannabis referendum result to change it would require roughly 70 percent of the special votes to go in favor,” he said.
That said, Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick, who has been at the forefront of the nation’s legalization debate, said she remains “optimistic.”
“Today’s result shows what we had long assumed, that it was going to be really close and that we need to wait for the specials to be sure of the result,” she said. “We have said from the outset that this would always come down to voter turnout. We’ve had record numbers of special votes.”
Win or lose, New Zealand’s referendum marks the first time an entire country’s voters have been asked to decide whether to legalize cannabis. Unveiled in April, the federal government’s proposal would allow adults 20 and older to purchase and possess marijuana as well as cultivate up to two plants for personal use. The proposal would also open cannabis coffeeshops, where on-site consumption would be permitted.
A government levy on marijuana sales would be used to boost national health services, though it hasn’t yet been decided what the rate would be.
The public referendum resulted from a deal the country’s Green Party struck after agreeing to help install Labour Party leader Jacina Ardern as prime minister following the country’s 2017 election.
Passage of the referendum would make New Zealand just the third country with a national law allowing cannabis sales, following Uruguay and Canada. A handful of other nations, meanwhile, have policies allowing personal possession and home cultivation.
Going into the election, polls of likely voters showed a tight race, with opponents leading in some surveys and supporters ahead in others.
Even if voters are shown to have ultimately approved the referendum when all the ballots are counted next week, legalization wouldn’t happen automatically. Parliament would still need to enact the proposed legislation, and lawmakers could make changes along the way.
People with past cannabis-related convictions likely wouldn’t see their records cleared under the plan. Little, the minister of justice, said earlier this month that his office has no plans to erase past convictions even if the referendum passes. He nevertheless acknowledged that the drug war isn’t working.
“Up to 80 percent of New Zealanders are saying in surveys that they have at some time in their lives tried cannabis,” Little said. “Prohibition is not prohibiting cannabis. It’s in our communities, so it is time to decide on whether to control it.”
On provisional results of the two referendums voted on in the 2020 General Election, the electorate has voted in support of the End of Life Choice referendum, and against the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill becoming law. https://t.co/LVHKmH4c2l
— Andrew Little (@AndrewLittleMP) October 30, 2020
But on Friday, after the preliminary results were announced, the justice minister said that “there are no other plans that we have for broader drug reform.”
But if voters ultimately reject the measure, Ardern, the prime minister, has indicated there may still be a path forward for some reforms, even if it’s not full-scale legalization. The official, whose party won handily in this month’s elections, said use should be treated as a public health matter rather than a criminal justice problem.
“Regardless of the outcome of the vote, we will look at the way the Misuse of Drugs Act amendments are being applied, making sure we’ve got the addiction and treatment facilities that we need, and making sure those referrals are happening in the cases where they should,” she said on the campaign trail this month, according to the New Zealand Herald.
Ardern refused to say during the campaign whether she planned to vote for the referendum. But on Friday, after the preliminary results were announced, her office said that she voted in favor of it.