Hard News by Russell Brown

4

Poll Pot and the partisans

Yesterday's Horizon poll showing support for a "Yes" vote in this year's cannabis referendum sliding into the majority for the first time in a year looked like good news for reformers – and it probably is. But the result warrants some scrutiny.

The poll is the fifth in a series commissioned from Horizon by Helius Therapeutics, so it provides a reasonable picture of the way public sentiment has evolved over time – including the way support for reform slipped when reform became a concrete proposal.

But this fifth one is different. It's the first in which respondents have been forced to choose a prospective "Yes" or "No" vote in the referendum. The extent to which respondents are encouraged to make a decision can often help explain the difference between one company's poll and the next. It might be expected to have a significant influence here, given the substantial pool of undecided-but-persuadable voters detected in other research. (February's poll for the Drug Foundation and the Helen Clark Foundation, for instance, showed "Yes" and "No" effectively tied, with 10% of voters in the middle yet to decide.)

Another methodological feature that can influence an overall result is the order of questions in the polling script itself. In this new Horizon poll, that looks quite crucial.

As far as I can see, respondents were asked at least two questions before their prospect give voting intention was sought. The first was:

Currently, producing cannabis for personal or non-prescription use is prohibited in New Zealand, with the intention of limiting its availability and use. Do you think prohibition of cannabis is working in New Zealand society?

To answer "yes" to that question, it was necessary to agree, or purport to agree, with the following:

Yes, cannabis is hard to access and rarely used in New Zealand society.

In that light, the 83% who said prohibition wasn't working doesn't seem quite as striking.

 The second question was this:

Currently, growing cannabis for personal use is prohibited in New Zealand. Which one of the following options do you think will have a better outcome for New Zealand society?

The options for answer were as follows:

  • Continuing with no controls over growing and selling personal use. (26%)
  • Controls over growing and selling personal use. (72%)

This sets up the proposition in quite an obvious way, with legalisation and regulation implicitly presented as the prudent and responsible course of action: "controls" versus "no controls.

It's not dishonest: it's literally the argument most of us make for reform. But it has very probably had a bearing on responses, and was crafted with that in mind.

And yet, remarkably, not everyone who believes prohibtion is a failure and controls on cultivation and use would be better would actually vote to end prohibition and introduce those controls. How you would vote in the referendum depends a lot on which party you intend to vote for:

For National voters 82% say prohibition is not working, 79% believe controls would deliver a better outcome but only 27% will vote to legalise cannabis for personal use; for New Zealand First voters 89% say prohibition is not working, 79% believe controls would be better but 46% will vote to legalise; for Act voters 89% percent believe prohibition is not working, 71% believe controls would be better but 45% will vote to legalise; for Labour voters 90% believe prohibition is not working, 80% believe controls would be better but 64% will vote to legalise; and for Green voters 98% believe prohibition is not working, 66% believe controls would be better and 78% will vote to legalise.

Some of the gap voters possibly believe that legalisation is a step too far but would support decriminalisation (although the evidence is not that it is actually the better option). But it's hard to explain that National voter result as anything but blunt political partisanship. Half of those National voters intend to vote against their own judgement on the issue because they currently associate reform with the Left.

Sandra Murray, the co-ordinator of the Make It Legal campaign, told me yesterday it tallied with her experience:

From discussions with National supporters at stalls, what I see is a "team" mentality. Regardless of their personal feelings for a topic - they always 'root for their team' and see politics as a my team vs your team thing.

So this poll makes perfect sense to me: many older people think prohibition doesn't work and think we need better controls, but they won't vote Yes because that would be supporting the "other team". They will vote yes when its a National bill.

That's presumably the same reason that fewer than half of supporters of Act, the party of personal choice, would vote to continue to criminalise personal choice – even though party leader David Seymour has made it clear he supports a "Yes" vote.

It's possible that we saw the mirror image of that with National's flag referendum. Labour voters, even those of a republican bent, probably did oppose a new flag because John Key supported it. Personally, I told myself that I was all for a new flag, just not for getting stuck with that ghastly Lockwood one – which is only mostly true.

I honestly don't know how to navigate that – and in a way people like me, wittering about evidence and obsessing over market allocation rules, are part of the problem. It's just not how most normal people think.

Indeed, Drug Foundation director Ross Bell says that according to their research, "People agree that prohibition isn't working. But it tests poorly as a key message to win over persuadable voters."

When I spoke to the foundation's referendum campaign director Renee Shingles, she said that more successful messages tend to revolve around the social contract. I'll have more on that soon, from the Splore Listening Lounge panel with Renee and Make It Legal's Chris Fowlie, which is being transcribed at the moment.

For now, I think we can say two things. One is that while this new poll offers some reason for optimism among reformers, there are substantial caveats to that optimism. The other is that if the "Yes" vote does get over the line, opposition to legalisation and regulation will ebb away as the partisan politics around it does.

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