AUCKLAND – New Zealanders are poised to decide on two landmark social issues during an election Saturday: whether to legalize recreational marijuana and whether to legalize euthanasia.
A “yes” vote on both referendums would arguably make the nation of 5 million one of the more liberal countries in the world. Polls indicate the euthanasia referendum is likely to pass while the result of the marijuana measure remains uncertain.
The two referendums are being held at the same time as people cast votes for lawmakers and political parties. As a result, the referendums have been somewhat overshadowed both by the political campaigns and this year's coronavirus outbreak.
In the political race, popular Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears set to win a second term in office, with her liberal Labour Party polling far ahead of the conservative National Party led by Judith Collins.
The euthanasia measure, which would also allow assisted suicide, would apply to people who have terminal illnesses, are likely to die within six months, and are enduring “unbearable” suffering.
Countries that allow some form of euthanasia include The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Canada, Belgium and Colombia.
The marijuana measure would allow people to buy up to 14 grams (0.5 ounce) a day and grow two plants. Other countries that have legalized recreational marijuana include Canada, South Africa, Uruguay, Georgia plus a number of U.S. states.
Lara Greaves, a lecturer in New Zealand politics at the University of Auckland, said she thinks the marijuana referendum is destined to fail.
“I think the problem is that we would be going from criminalization, and a bit of medicinal use, to full-on recreational use,” she said. “Probably what needed to happen to get the public on board was to have a phase of decriminalization.”
She said a large turnout of younger voters would be necessary for the measure to have any hope of passing but that was far from certain.
Another factor is that Ardern has declined to say how she intends to vote, saying she wants to leave it for people to decide. Greaves said that made a big difference, as people tend to follow their leaders. The prime minister did admit during the campaign to smoking marijuana when she was younger.
One vocal proponent of the marijuana referendum has been former Prime Minister Helen Clark. A position paper from her foundation argues that indigenous Maori have faced disproportionate and excessive punishment from the legal system when caught with the drug.
"Cannabis use is a reality in New Zealand, and the results of our current policy approach damage our health, worsen social equity, and drive crime," Clark's foundation said.
Arguing against the referendum is a number of community and religious groups who have formed the “Say Nope to Dope” campaign. They say today's marijuana is strong, addictive and harmful, and that keeping it illegal deters people from using it.
If the euthanasia referendum is approved, it would become law, whereas if the marijuana referendum is approved, it would still require lawmakers to pass matching legislation. The results from both referendums will be announced Oct. 30.