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New Zealand voters approve right to die — but not to get high

Billboard in Christchurch, New Zealand, urging people to vote against legalizing euthanasia
A billboard in Christchurch, New Zealand, urges passing motorists to vote against legalizing euthanasia.
(Mark Baker / Associated Press)

New Zealanders voted to legalize euthanasia in a binding referendum, but preliminary results released Friday showed they likely would not legalize recreational marijuana use.

With about 83% of votes counted, New Zealanders emphatically endorsed the euthanasia measure, with 65% voting in favor and 34% voting against.

The vote on marijuana was closer, with 53% voting against legalizing the drug for recreational use and 46% voting in favor. That left open a tiny chance that the measure could still pass once all so-called special votes, including those cast by overseas voters, were counted next week, but it would require a huge swing.

The two referendums represented significant potential changes to New Zealand’s social fabric, although the campaigns for each ended up getting overshadowed somewhat by the COVID-19 pandemic and a parallel political race, in which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her liberal Labor Party won a second term in a historic landslide.

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Proponents of legalizing marijuana were frustrated that Ardern would not reveal how she intended to vote ahead of the Oct. 17 ballot. Many believed an endorsement by Ardern could boost support for the measure, but she said she wanted to leave the decision to New Zealanders.

On Friday, after the results were released, Ardern revealed that she had voted in favor of both legalizations.

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Conservative lawmaker Nick Smith of the opposition National Party welcomed the preliminary marijuana result.

“This is a victory for common sense. Research shows cannabis causes mental health problems, reduced motivation and educational achievement, and increased road and workplace deaths,” he said. “New Zealanders have rightly concluded that legalizing recreational cannabis would normalize it, make it more available, increase its use and cause more harm.”

But Green Party lawmaker Chloe Swarbrick said she held out hope that the special votes might still allow legalization to squeak through.

“We have said from the outset that this would always come down to voter turnout. We’ve had record numbers of special votes, so I remain optimistic,” she said. “New Zealand has had a really mature and ever-evolving conversation about drug laws in this country, and we’ve come really far in the last three years.”

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Proponents had argued that the measure would reduce profits for gangs and improve social and legal outcomes for New Zealand’s Indigenous community, the Maoris.

The euthanasia measure, which would allow assisted suicide and takes effect in November 2021, would apply to adults who have terminal illnesses, are likely to die within six months and are enduring “unbearable” suffering. Other countries that allow some form of euthanasia include the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Canada, Belgium and Colombia.

“It is a victory for all New Zealand as we become a more compassionate and humane society,” said lawmaker David Seymour of the libertarian ACT Party. “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.”

But Dr. John Kleinsman, an ethicist for the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference, said the vote put vulnerable people on a dangerous path. He said the mere option of euthanasia would be a burden and put pressure on many ailing people and their families, as well as on healthcare and religious workers.

The marijuana measure would allow people to buy up to half an ounce a day and grow two plants. It was a nonbinding vote, so if voters approved it, legislation would have to be passed to implement it. Ardern had promised to respect the outcome and bring forward the legislation, if it was necessary.

Other countries that have legalized or decriminalized recreational marijuana include Canada, South Africa, Uruguay, Georgia and a number of U.S. states.


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