By Michael Reddell 26/04/2019


There was an interesting new poll out the other day on public attitudes to marijuana and the possibility of law reform (on which there is to be a referendum at the time of next year’s election).  The results certainly took me by surprise.

For the record, I don’t have very strong views on the law around marijuana. A couple of years ago I’d got to the point where I’d probably have voted for full liberalisation, but since then I’ve swung back somewhat in the other direction (influenced in part by reviews of and extracts from this recent book, a copy of which I’m expecting in the mail any day now). In an up/down vote today I’d probably vote against full liberalisation, but as to how I will actually vote next year, a lot might depend on the specific question. One thing I really don’t like is a law on the books that isn’t generally enforced, but which leaves our untrustworthy Police free to use it when it suits them.

But I’d been under the impression that New Zealand public opinion was pretty favourable to substantial liberalisation of “recreational” use of marijuana. So I wasn’t expecting this result. Asked “which of the following statements comes closest to your opinion on cannabis?”, responses were as follows:

The margins of error get quite large quite quickly once the results are broken down, but young people are probably more favourable to liberalisation than old people, poor people probably more favourable than better-off people, and National voters much less favourable than Green voters (but only 53 per cent of the latter favoured liberalisation of recreational use, as posed this way).

The poll was commissioned by Family First who have been opposed to liberalisation of recreational use.  In itself, that doesn’t invalidate the results (probably almost anyone likely to be polling in this area in New Zealand is likely to be motivated in one direction or the other) but it is worth thinking about whether the questions posed are especially likely to skew the answers one way or the other.

One problem is this area is the array of possible options. As someone without an intense interest in the topic, I struggle to remember the difference between, say, decriminalisation and legalisation, and as Family First notes the poll deliberately didn’t focus on either of those more-technical terms, asking instead about “lifting restrictions”. In principle, you can lift restrictions partially or fully, and when I first looked at the question my immedate reaction was that it encompassed both. But perhaps many of the interviewees took “lifting restrictions” as removing all restrictions and penalties?  If so, that might help explain why support for recreational liberalisation appears so low.

Perhaps there is also an issue with posing both the medicinal and recreational options in the same question. While lifting (in part or in full) restrictions on recreational use would seem to encompass freeing up medicinal use, it doesn’t actually say that. Perhaps some people who care quite a bit –  or want to go on record as caring quite a bit –  about medicinal use plumped for that option, even if they actually favoured recreational use liberalisation, to ensure a resounding explicit vote on medicinal. Presumably that won’t be the way next year’s referendum will be framed?

Some of the other results in the poll were also interesting. There were six questions, and the questions on policy preferences is the last of them. The preceding questions might, in principle, (been framed to?) influence how people answered the final question.

The first question was:

mar 2

I’d have answered “increase” too, and I don’t think that result should be too surprising. Reduce the effective price and, all else equal, consumption is likely to rise. Note that the question is framed around “reducing” restrictions on use of cannabis, not about more specific choices, and that seems fine.

The second question was more puzzling:

mar 3

I don’t know (and probably would have said so), but it would probably be rational for them to do so (the possibility of a new substance to market, and perhaps undermining restrictions on tobacco).  But one might wonder why the question was asked? To prompt people to associate liberalisation with “big tobacco”?

What about question 3?

mar 4

This seems to be a pretty widespread concern (among serious opponents of liberalisation) so not an unreasonable question. But note the “can” –  which is a possibility, and thus more likely to get a positive response than, say, a “does”. Even 95 per cent of Greens voters – people who end up favouring recreational liberalisation – ended up saying “yes” to this one.

And then question 4:

mar 5 Again, it is an argument you see around (including reviewing the experiences of US states that have liberalised), and actually the question doesn’t seem posed unfairly (both “more likely” and “less likely” are explicitly mentioned), and there is an overwhelming vote for “more likely”. Of course, there might be a selection issue at work: respondents might think people likely to take marijuana were also already younger and less responsible (more risk-taking perhaps) so they might not be directly asserting causation.

Perhaps the same issue arises with question 5:

mar 6

Even 46 per cent of Green voters said “less likely” to this one, but again it isn’t quite clear what will have been going in behind the responses. Some people will have been thinking ‘well, many firms have drug tests, and if you take drugs you will fail those tests and not get a job”. Others will have been reflecting views on the potential work ethic of those who might take jobs. Others again will have been worried about the potential mental illness effects (see earlier questions).

I don’t have too much of a problem with asking any of the questions that led up to question 6 (views on liberalisation itself). After all, when the referendum comes people won’t be voting in a vacuum but will face a plethora of arguments, evidence, and pseudo-evidence on both sides. Of course, if one wanted totally disinterested poll results – wouldn’t that be great – one might have wanted some other questions interspersed reflecting some of the arguments of those who favour liberalisation. Perhaps “do you think people should be free to choose what they inject or inhale, without state restrictions?” or “even if you personally would never consider taking marijuana, do you believe Police should have discretionary power, often not exercised, to prosecute those who do?”, or “do you think current marijuana law encourages or discourages criminal gangs” or the like.

In the end, I’m not sure quite what to make of the results. No doubt, the questions could be asked, and framed, in ways that produced higher numbers in favour of reduced restrictions on recreational use, and I doubt that – in any real sense – only 18 per cent of New Zealanders favour some liberalisation of recreational use. But I’m still left a bit surprised that, even on the questions asked on this poll, the support numbers weren’t higher.

Perhaps the result of next year’s referendum really will depend a lot on the specific question asked. It would be good if, before long, the government were to give us some specifics on that, and on the whole associated regulatory or tax regime they are proposing.