SYDNEY – New Zealanders have voted to approve assisted dying but against the legalization of recreational cannabis in two referendums held as part of the Oct. 17 general election.
The Electoral Commission announced on Friday that 65.2 percent voted in favor of the End of Life Choice Act, which passed through parliament last year and will give people with a terminal illness that is likely to end their life within six months the option of requesting assisted dying.
The Cannabis Legalization and Control Bill, which had not yet passed through parliament and aimed to “reduce cannabis-related harm to individuals, families/whānau and communities,” was voted down by a slim margin, with 53.1 percent against.
“The End of Life Choice Act has gone through the parliamentary process and has been given Royal Assent, so it will come into effect 12 months from the final results – on Nov. 6, 2021,” Justice Minister Andrew Little said in a statement.
“The Cannabis Legalization and Control Bill will not be introduced as legislation by the Labour Government this term,” he added. Little told local media that he had voted “yes” to legalization.
The official results are pending the count of almost half a million special votes – including those cast by post, from overseas or COVID-19 managed isolation facilities, or by prisoners on remand – to be released next Friday, Nov. 6. While these could affect the narrow cannabis vote outcome, it is expected to be unlikely given that around 69 percent would need to vote in favor.
The results were in line with advance polling, which showed a clear majority for a “yes” vote for the euthanasia act, while the cannabis bill looked to go either way due to a significant number of undecided voters.
The two referendums were held as part of the Oct. 17 general election, which the Labour Party won in a historic landslide, handing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern another term without the need to form a coalition government. She confirmed to local media Friday that she had voted “yes” in both polls.
The outcome for the End of Life Choice Act came after years of emotional debate that cut across party lines, with both Ardern and opposition National Party leader Judith Collins in support.
ACT party leader David Seymour, who sponsored the euthanasia bill, released a statement Friday thanking New Zealanders, saying the country “has become a more compassionate and humane society.”
“Thousands of New Zealanders who might have suffered excruciating deaths will have choice, dignity, control, and autonomy over their own bodies, protected by the rule of law,” he said.
In contrast, the conservative Family First NZ organization said the law will be “danger to both the vulnerable and society in general.”
“It is one thing to say yes to a nice sounding phrase around having ‘choice,’ but assisted suicide is not a simple yes no answer,” said national director Bob McCoskrie in a statement. “Nothing in this Act guarantees the protection required for vulnerable people, including the disabled, elderly, depressed or anxious, and those who feel themselves to be a burden or who are under financial pressure.”
The cannabis referendum proved more divisive, with some academics pointing out public concerns around safe driving and workplace productivity, youth access, and a rise in dependency and associated health and social costs.
The Green Party’s Drug Reform spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick was optimistic that the special votes would flip the outcome and said she was proud of the ‘yes’ camp’s “evidence based” campaign.
“I gave this my all,” she said, later tweeting that “cannabis exists regardless of the law. The law can increase or decrease that harm. Right now, it hurts far more than it helps.”
“Today I’m thinking of the folks I’ve met who’ve been prosecuted and penalized under prohibition. Legalization would fix the historical injustice that made them criminals. Others who flippantly admit to the same crime became politicians and business leaders,” she added.
NZ Drug Foundation chair Tuari Potiki said that “even those who campaigned for a ‘no’ vote publicly accepted that cannabis use should be treated as a health and social issue, and decriminalized.”
“The problems caused by prohibition will not disappear by themselves. We cannot stand back and ignore those who carry the greatest burden of the current punitive approach: young people, and Māori. Inaction is not an option: the need for reform is as urgent as ever,” he added.
The National Party’s drug reform spokesperson Nick Smith said the outcome was “a vote for common sense” and that New Zealand “will be healthier, safer and more successful” for voting no.
A total of 1,574,645 votes were counted in favor of voluntary euthanasia, with 815,829 against, while 1,114,485 votes were counted in support of the legalization of recreational cannabis use, with 1,281,818 counted against it.