New Zealanders voted to legalize euthanasia in a binding referendum, but preliminary results released Friday showed they were unlikely to legalize the use of marijuana for recreational activities.
With around 83% of the votes counted, New Zealanders emphatically endorsed the euthanasia measure with 65% voting in favor and 34% voting against.
The no vote on marijuana was much closer, with 53% voting against legalizing the drug for recreational use and 46% voting in favor. That left a small chance open that the measure could still stand when all special votes were counted next week, even though it would require a huge fluctuation.
The two referendums represented significant potential changes in New Zealand’s social structure, though campaigns for each end up being overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic and a parallel political race in which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Liberal Labor Party won another term in a landslide.
In previous elections, special votes – which include those cast by overseas voters – have tended to track more liberal than general votes, giving proponents of marijuana legalization some hope that the measure could still pass.
Proponents of legalizing the drug were frustrated that Ardern would not reveal how she intended to vote before the October 17 vote. Many believed that an Ardern approval could have increased support for the measure, but she said she wanted to leave the decision to New Zealanders. Ardern said Friday after the results were announced that she had voted for both referendums.
Conservative lawmaker Nick Smith of the opposition party welcomed the preliminary marijuana result.
“This is a victory for common sense. Research shows that cannabis causes mental problems, decreased motivation and educational performance and increased deaths on the road and in the workplace, ”he said. “New Zealanders have rightly concluded that the legalization of recreational cannabis would normalize it, make it more accessible, increase its use and cause more harm.”
But Liberal lawmaker Chlöe Swarbrick of the Greens said they had long assumed that the vote would be close and that they would have to wait until the special votes were counted.
“We have said from the beginning that this will always come down to turnout. We have had a record number of special votes, so I remain optimistic, ”she said. “New Zealand has had a really mature and constantly evolving conversation about drug laws in this country and we have come a long way in the last three years.”
Supporters had argued that the measure would reduce profits for gangs and improve social and legal outcomes for indigenous Maori.
The euthanasia measure, which also enables assisted suicide and enters into force in November 2021, will apply to adults who have terminal illnesses, are likely to die within six months and experience “unbearable” suffering. Other countries that allow some form of euthanasia include the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Canada, Belgium and Colombia.
“It is a victory for the whole of New Zealand when we become a more compassionate and humane society,” said legislator David Seymour of the Libertarian ACT Party. “Thousands of New Zealanders who may have suffered unbearable deaths have choice, dignity, control and autonomy over their own bodies, protected by the rule of law.”
But Dr. John Kleinsman, ethics for New Zealand Catholic bishops, said the vote put vulnerable people on a dangerous path. He said the mere possibility of euthanasia would be a burden and pressure for many sick people and their families as well as for health and religious workers.
The marijuana measure would allow people to buy up to 14 grams (0.5 ounces) a day and grow two plants. It was a non-binding vote, so if voters approved it, legislation would have to be passed to implement it. Ardern had promised to respect the result and bring the legislation forward if necessary.
Other countries that have legalized or decriminalized recreational marijuana include Canada, South Africa, Uruguay, Georgia plus a number of US states.