Polls show how to win the cannabis referendum: social equity, social enterprise and social clubs


According to two polls this week, the cannabis referendum is in serious trouble. But they also provide clues for how to win.

TVNZ’s Colmar Brunton poll had support for making cannabis legal at 39%, versus 52% for the status quo. It’s a drop from two years ago. A Newshub/Reid Research poll was also concerning, with 42% saying they would vote Yes, but 48% would vote No.

The two polls were themselves a source of controversy, after showing very different levels of support for the political parties, but they are at least a wake-up call; a reminder that we have no room for complacency and a lot of work to do.

Just a few months ago it seemed a certainty.

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How did we get here?

Complacency. Our side hasn’t begun to do much, partly because we don’t know yet what we’re supporting, but mostly because of the impression it’s going to pass without needing to do much.

Lack of leadership. Unfortunately, the government hasn’t done nearly enough to ensure it will pass. Policy development has been slow and secretive. The lack of public consultation and engagement has created an information vacuum, filled with misinformation and hysteria from the likes of Family First.

Lack of serious (or sane) opposition. Family First get so much coverage because the media can’t find anyone else to argue for continued prohibition. This has included their scaremongering about gummy bears and so-called “Big Cannabis”, which should have been easily predicted and shut down.

Eyes off the ball. It hasn’t helped that other issues have taken the focus of key Ministers. An amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act, that will direct police to take a much needed health-based approach for all drugs, has perhaps spread fears the government is legalising everything.

Feeding concerns. The Government has presented a higher-than-expected age limit of 20 due to “knowing” the brain is still developing at 25. Buying into these Reefer Madness claims has given the opposition plenty of ammunition, even though it’s false. The Government seemingly tried to neutralise the issue of drug-impaired driving by announcing it will be consulted on ahead of the referendum (submissions close Friday 28 June), but it perhaps gave the impression of reinforcing the problem without presenting a clear solution. Some business maneuverings for medical cannabis may have also encouraged concerns of an impending “Big Cannabis” industry.

What can we learn, and how can we win?

The referendum will pass. We can pretty much guarantee it – if only because the Government has staked it’s future to the result by holding the referendum at the election, and binding itself to implementing the result (kind of). That means the question must be broadly supported and pass by a decent majority, not a razor-thin band of support. That’s also why the question itself is not yet formulated. It will be decided in the first half of next year. We have until then to move public support sufficiently so that the proposed model is the best it can be.

Compromise. We won’t get a model that everyone thinks is perfect. We can get a model that most people can live with. Be prepared to compromise and get behind whatever is proposed, even if it has elements you don’t like. Don’t let perfect get in the way of better.

Education is crucial. Start with those around you: work on common points of agreement, keep it light, give personal examples. But it’s really hard for anyone to drown out the deluge of anti-cannabis propaganda heard on mainstream media. The government has a role to play, and needs to start spending serious money on a public education campaign, like some of the $13.4 million set aside for the referendum in the Budget. It doesn’t need to take sides, but it does need to promote factual discourse, now.

Social equity. Recent successful campaigns led by progressive leaders in North America have had strong social equity elements, including setting aside tax revenues for expunging criminal records and reducing barriers for experienced providers to go legal. Illinois is setting aside some licenses for disadvantaged communities, and reinvesting tax revenues into those areas most affected by previous policies. This will be a key to winning here. People can put up with a lot if they know some good will come of it.

Social enterprises. The cabinet paper released by Andrew Little lacks detail over how cannabis will be provided. To be successful the referendum model must resolve concerns about commercialised markets held by conservatives, consumers who prefer home growing, and policy advocates who favour strict controls over marketing and availability. Liquor Licensing Trusts provide a model of sorts, but they lack transparency and are not especially popular among residents who live in those areas, nor must they compete with the illicit market. Retail could instead be run by a variety of social enterprises. These businesses would have social objectives, pay a levy on cannabis sales that would go into local community grants, and could have a Duty of Care to look after their customers.

Social clubs. There must be licensed premises for adults to consume safely in private, including apartment dwellers and tourists who would otherwise be directed to those who operate outside the law. But NZ’s recent history with legal highs and alcohol stores has turned many people off the prospect of cannabis stores on the High Street. Cannabis Social Clubs are usually run as non-profit clubs where members join together to provide for themselves, such as growing communally or having private social use space. If run well, they may keep more people happy.

In Uruguay consumers can legally access cannabis by growing their own, purchasing from a pharmacy, or joining a Cannabis Social Club. Applying that model to New Zealand could see adults over 20 allowed to grow their own, similar to home brewing; obtain a range of products from pharmacies or other retail that are run as social enterprises; while also having the option to form or join a Cannabis Social Club to grow and use socially and privately.

While a vote for Yes may not be truly binding, a No vote would be. Politicians would not touch cannabis law reform for another generation. That’s why we should be terrified at the result of these two local polls, and we need to discuss what policy would resolve the most concerns, be the most broadly supported, and would have the best chance of passing.

A model based on social equity, social enterprises and social clubs could be what it takes to win the cannabis referendum.


Chris Fowlie is the CEO of Zeacann Limited, a medicinal cannabis producer; serves on the executive of the New Zealand Medical Cannabis Council; is president of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws NZ Inc; a co-founder of The Hempstore Aotearoa; resident expert for Marijuana Media on 95bFM; blogger for The Daily Blog, and court-recognised independent expert witness for cannabis. The opinions expressed here are his own.


  1. 1. Chloe said she has seen the damage cannabis has caused.
    2. She wants to make it legal so people can access help openly.
    3. Her approach is based on solid public health research.
    3. We have just put 1.9 billion over five years into mental health and addiction services on top of $??? already.
    4. I noted several years ago that one DHB put more money into activity based day programmes for addicts than the whole regions’ primary maternity units.
    Alcohol and drug addiction has a huge cost at every level. We just dont have enough clinical psychologists to cope. Who are we NZ?
    Bunch of absolute pissheads and dopeheads by the look of it Chloe.

    • Quite right. I’ve never understood this obsession with cannabis and why so many people in NZ are desperate to get their hands freely on the stuff. Sad losers I guess, with nothing else to fill their empty lives. And we will have to cope with more drugged-up drivers on the roads – perhaps my greatest worry considering Kiwi drivers are not the most competent at the best of times.

    • Its a worldwide activity, millions of people consume cannabis everyday of the year. It seems to me its just peoples judgment of others behavior getting in the way.

      What about the argument from personal freedom? Should people be allowed to make the decisions they deem worthy of there lives without fear of police kicking in the doors?

      The sooner its treated as a health issue the better. This needs to happen regardless of the referendum.

      • How about my ‘personal freedom’ to drive on the road and not be killed by some ‘fried’ doper?

        • Its a silly argument but sure,thats what regulation is for. I have a right to walk down the road and not be stabbed…but knives are still legal. It goes on forever with the silly examples.

          Personal freedoms and responsibility is important. I dont want to live in a police state.

    • Very intelligent comment OP-keep them coming.
      Ive been asking a few of the old pissheads at the bowling club how to vote on this cannabis thing-mixed bag of poorly thought out comments as you can imagine (great blokes bless them)
      Being a practical solution focussed geeky public health/ policy analyst/data analysis/public money well spent type of nerd I think about 100 of us in NZ need some solid info on which to base our decision.
      1. How much shit does dope cause in NZ?
      2. What do we spend to clean up the shit caused by cannabis?
      3. How many people are on the stuff and how many more will be if its legalised?
      4. With increasing rates of hopelessness in NZ will the take up rate skyrocket? Is it a precursor drug that leads to P.
      5. Can a yes vote be reversed later?
      Chloe says legalise it so dope addicts can get help. But dont we spend billions on addiction services already?-way more than primary maternity.
      Is the only reason to legalise it so people can access help? Seems a bit lame Chloe. Are there really any pot smokers out there saying “oh man I hate this shit man, I really need help man, but man but Im just too scared man”
      Who are we NZ? A people who base important decisions on scant and incomplete data.

      • I’ve got this one folks.

        1. How much shit does dope cause in NZ? 12 000 needless arrests EVERY SINGLE FUCKING YEAR for a product far less lethal than tobacco and alcohol. It also allows the Police vast search and surveillance powers through the good old, “I can smell pot” play. It’s valued as a billion dollar black industry that allows organised crime to flourish.

        2. What do we spend to clean up the shit caused by cannabis? We are looking at around $200m each year for the prosecution of cannabis.

        3. How many people are on the stuff and how many more will be if its legalised? 60% of NZ have tried cannabis

        4. With increasing rates of hopelessness in NZ will the take up rate skyrocket? Is it a precursor drug that leads to P. That question is remarkably stupid and suggest you have no comprehension of the difference between meth and THC.

        5. Can a yes vote be reversed later? The very basic premise of the NZ Parliamentary system using a one chamber westminster model means Parliament can always and will always be sovereign.

        • wow-that was easy Martyn.
          “Next please!!”.
          You could save us an absolute fortune in the instant policy analysis unit at head office!
          FYI-precursor drug=”oh dude try P man way better than dope”

          • Im pretty certain that an enormous amount of academic research shows alcohol is a gateway drug, not cannabis

    • I must respond. As a so called dopehead and also pisshead of nearly 5 decades I can tell you arseholes that know zilch about it, yet seem to know everything that there is no damage, no addiction, no progression to meth etc. It’s all bullshit. Tell you what, just try it. If you like the effect a little booze has, then you’ll like it! Just have a little bit. And by the way, my boss knows I smoke it and I know he does (well used to) and nobody gives a toss. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it!

  2. The problem is that anyone who supports legalisation of cannabis can’t say so publicly because it is illegal. It is the same as putting a target on your back. Imagine, say, if one was to write a letter to the paper in support of legalisation and your boss reads it. Next thing you know, you are being asked to do a drug test.

    And imagine if you publicly start talking about how you actually enjoy taking cannabis because its a fun drug. Even those who support legalisation have to couch their language in negative language about it eg health issue.

    Maybe we need a campaign for legalisation that promotes it as a great way to get high.

  3. Bennett used scare tactics with bs like “cannabis cookies” and lollies infused with cannabis

    The other day I bought choclate biscuits with alcohol infused in them

    Hypocrisy rulez

    • Bennett has admitting using it in her younger days. She may have ended up a better person if she continued using, given how she’s turned out.

  4. Is decriminalization the golden mean here? That way nobody gets a criminal record for growing their own or sharing with friends, but we don’t get another massive legal drug industry pushing their wares at vulnerable young people – the risk that some see in full legalization of cannabis.

    • but then you leave the entire growing/selling market to the gangs and dealers. Thats what we have right now and its a big problem. Regulation is the way forward for harm reduction.

  5. I suddenly feel far less optimistic then I used to about cannabis law reform in NZ. Those poll numbers are damning and reveal the massive conservative streak that runs across the electorate. My prediction is that this referendum will split largely along party lines at the next election but with older voters from all parties favoring a No vote. Since older voters are far more likely to turn up at the polling booth I do not think there will be a Yes vote for the cannabis referendum.
    The one thing that could change those numbers would be a trans-formative stance and campaign by the Labour government and Adern in particular but that would cost a lot of political capital and for what exactly? Keeping a small, largely unproductive – but very relaxed – portion of the electorate happy. On current form I don’t think the government will take the risk.
    It’s more probable that we will see incremental change and directives such as the one already given to police to shift the issue from criminal to health where possible.

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