The hopes of marijuana reform advocates that New Zealand would become the third country after Uruguay and Canada to legalize recreational marijuana appear to be slipping away.

The country is set to become the first in the world to decide on the measure through a national referendum on October 17, which will be held alongside a general election. Yet it has failed to generate a great deal of media attention or public interest.

This is at least partly because 2020 is, well, not quite like other years. The Covid-19 pandemic and its fallout continues to dominate the news agenda and election campaign talking points. And this suits Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern just fine. She has focused her re-election efforts on her government’s widely-praised response to the coronavirus outbreak, rather than getting drawn in on a divisive issue such as marijuana legalization.

“She just would not want to talk about any other issue other than COVID-19,” said Geoffrey Miller, political analyst at the Democracy Project. “It’s just not in Labour’s interest to talk about cannabis…there is no upside,” he added.

The strategy seems to be working. Ardern’s Labour Party is on course for victory, with a recent poll projecting the party is close to securing a working majority. This would mean Labour would no longer need to rule as a governing coalition.

Recent polling on the marijuana legalization proposal is much less clear cut. Horizon Research found public opinion on the measure is split right down the middle – 49.5 percent for, 49.5 percent against, with the remaining 1 percent unsure. Another poll, courtesy of 1 News Colmar Brunton, revealed support for the measure to be as low as 35 percent, down from 40 percent a few months ago and 43 percent late last year.

These poor polling numbers are giving cause for concern to marijuana reform advocates who hoped the vote would bring about an end to drug convictions which disproportionately happen to marginalized and indigenous Maori communities.

“This is the one opportunity we get. A no vote will entrench the current system and scare politicians away,” said Ross Bell, executive director at the New Zealand Drug Foundation.

Labour currently governs as a coalition with the support of New Zealand First and the Greens, of whom the latter insisted on the cannabis referendum as a precondition for its political support. The marijuana legalization measure for New Zealand’s 2020 ballot is the result of two and a half years of negotiations between the three governing parties.

If approved, the bill would allow individuals 21 and older to purchase up to 14 grams of marijuana per day from licensed cannabis dispensaries and grow up to two plants. A government commissioned report projected the measure could lead to 400 retail cannabis stores were they to supply the estimated 50 tonnes of marijuana consumed in New Zealand annually. The same report valued a recreational cannabis industry in the country at NZ$1.5 billion each year.

When asked her views on the referendum, Ardern has said she does not wish to interfere. When Labour’s main opposition, the National Party, pressed Ardern for her position she responded that the measure “has been designed for the public to decide.”

For Ross Bell, this speaks to an absence of political leadership given the proposed legislation was crafted by the governing parties.

“While ultimately the referendum is a vote for New Zealand’s public, a lot of voters would want senior ministers or even the prime minister herself to talk about why they wrote the bill in the way they did,” he said.

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