New Zealanders are about to vote on two of the most polarising social issues of our time – how much do you know about the cannabis and end of life referendums? 

In less than five weeks, New Zealanders will vote on two polarising issues in referendums, held at the same time as this year’s general election.

But how much do you really know about the issues at play? How familiar are you with what the End of Life Choice Act and the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?

And importantly: is it “referenda” or “referendums”?

(According to Arthur Pomeroy, emeritus professor of classics at Victoria University, it’s “referendums”.)

In today’s episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks to journalist Caralise Trayes and researcher Dr Marta Rychert about the two referendums this year, and what they could mean for the future of cannabis and assisted dying in New Zealand.

The assisted dying referendum is binding – the cannabis referendum is not.

This means the legislation pertaining to assisted dying is all ready to go: it’s been passed through Parliament and approved by a majority of MPs. The only question is whether the country wants to sign off on it.

The cannabis referendum, on the other hand, is non-binding: even if 99 percent of the population vote in favour, the governing party or parties could, theoretically, decide not to implement it – though doing so would be politically questionable.

Also the cannabis legislation hasn’t yet been finalised: it’s still a bill, and in order to become an act it still needs to pass through the parliamentary process: three readings in the House where issues can be raised and debated, and a select committee process where the public can make submissions and raise their concerns.

Freelance journalist Caralise Trayes has written a book about the assisted dying referendum called The Final Choice.

She says there are still blind spots in many people’s understanding of the legislation.

“Refusing treatment and ‘do not resuscitate’ orders require medical professionals not to intervene in what is naturally occurring. These are already legal.

“Euthanasia, assisted suicide or assisted dying requires a direct intervention with the intention to bring death.

“First up, you have to be eligible: you have to be over 18, you have to be a Kiwi citizen or permanent resident. You have to have a prognosis with less than six months to live. You must have an ongoing decline in physical capability and experience unbearable suffering which cannot be eased.

“You also need to be able to make an informed decision about dying.”

A prognosis of six months or less to live would be made by a doctor – but making that judgment in the first place can be fraught.

“We’re using this as such a strong, defining factor … but it’s not always accurate. There have been cases where doctors get prognoses very wrong.”

Any mental health issues a person has would not be factored into whether a person’s application was granted, Trayes says.

Meanwhile, the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill has a straightforward premise, says Dr Marta Rychert from Massey University.

“The main premise is that the bill proposes to legalise use, possession and sale of cannabis.

“People aged 20 and over – it would be legal for them to use, possess, and buy cannabis from licensed suppliers.”

Rychert says the legislation still has many grey areas – for example, how it deals with the idea of advertising marijuana, in an age where marketing and promotion stretch much further than TV screens or radio adverts.

She says it also needs to clarify the social equity components, to help ensure people and communities who’ve been historically disadvantaged by cannabis criminalisation can be involved with the new industry.

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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