Casting a better referendum ballot

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
25 September, 2020

Voting is not a duty. But if you do vote, you should vote well. Casting an informed ballot matters.

This year’s election will not just have voters choosing among parties to represent them in Parliament. Voters are also asked to decide two referendum questions: should euthanasia become legal under the End of Life Choice Act 2019 and cannabis under the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?

Both questions have attracted a bit of mischief. Opponents of the cannabis legislation, for example, bought newspaper ads suggesting that the drug might be sold at the local dairy. That would be illegal under the legislation as written. And discussions about US experiences with similar legalisation have not always been fairly represented.

Next week, The Helen Clark Foundation and The New Zealand Initiative will jointly host a Zoom webinar with The Brookings Institution’s John Hudak. Hudak is deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management and a senior fellow in Governance Studies. And he is also the author of Marijuana: A Short History.

In 1965, American President Lyndon Johnson told his country that its “continued insistence on treating drug addicts, once apprehended, as criminals, is neither humane nor effective. It has neither curtailed addiction nor prevented crime.”

The US war on drugs scaled up over the following three decades, to little benefit and much cost. Now, fifty-five years after Johnson’s warning, medicinal cannabis is legal in 33 states, with recreational cannabis legal in 11 and small amounts decriminalised in 16 states.

Because every state followed its own path in setting alternatives to prohibition, US policies are instructive for New Zealand. The states learned from each other and from their own experiences, adjusting legislation to deal with emerging problems.

Hudak’s book also details how public opinion in the US shifted over time. As legalisation progressed from state to state, voters saw the effects and public opinion bent in legalisation’s favour. In 2013, 35% of Republicans and 65% of Democrats supported legalisation. By 2019, 51% of Republicans and 76% of Democrats supported it.

Hudak will tell the webinar about the American experience in shifting from prohibition to regulated markets, the outcomes in different places and the lessons New Zealand might draw from those experiences to better inform our own debate.

To find out more about the US experience, and cast a wise ballot, register for the webinar here.

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