Why did New Zealand’s referendum to legalise recreation cannabis fail? An analysis of media campaigns and predictors of voter support for cannabis legalisation in New Zealand

Friday, 25 November, 2022 - 10:50 to 12:20


Introduction: In October 2020, New Zealand held world’s first national referendum for the legalisation of recreational cannabis. A number of explanations for the failure of the public referendum vote have been proposed, including that the anti-reform dominated public information space, and the role that the pre-existing moral beliefs played in voter choices. This research aimed to: (1) examine sentiment towards the reform in the digital media in the 3-months pre-referendum and (2) explore predictors of voter support for the NZ legalisation proposal. Method: (1) A systematic analysis of leading digital news providers and online cannabis advocacy campaigns; and (2) A representative population panel survey (N=1,022) of intended referendum voting. Results: The mean sentiment score of news articles was marginally supportive of reform (+0.4 on a scale of -2 to +2). On average, pro-legalisation articles were re-published more often (2.3 vs 1.5 times for anti-reform), received better placement on the digital news provider platform and more Facebook interactions (mean 1,129 vs 771 for anti-reform). Anti-reform articles focused on health and safety risks, while pro-reform featured more diverse themes, including criminal justice benefits, harm reduction via market control, wider access to medicinal cannabis, and economic benefits from legalisation. The principal pro-legalisation campaigner spent four times as much on Facebook advertising as the principal anti-legalisation campaigner, with the overall spending on both sides of the debate not substantially different.

In regression models of the population representative panel, we found that the most robust predictors of voters’ intention to support the cannabis legalisation proposal were: the use of and policy support for medicinal cannabis use, voting for a left-wing political party, having a positive moral view of cannabis use, living in a small town and having read the draft legalisation Bill. Discussion/Conclusion: The influence of moral views of cannabis use on voting behaviour suggest the need to debate the right to use cannabis, an argument largely absent from the mainstream media debate in NZ.


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