The Government is being urged not to ignore a "strong mandate" for drug law reform even though voters appear to have rejected legalising cannabis for personal use.
Former Green MP and Whakatāne councillor Nandor Tanczos, who has supported legalisation for 30 years, said the illegal status of cannabis created a metaphoric wall between health services and cannabis users.
"It's treating people who use cannabis as criminals and outsiders who don't belong in society, that they're bad people," he told the Herald.
"It's completely incorrect to say the electorate has rejected cannabis law reform entirely. There is a strong mandate for some kind of change. It's going to be up to us [not politicians] whether drug law reform goes back on the table."
But Justice Minister Andrew Little said it would be "irresponsible" to reform drug laws, including legalising or decriminalising cannabis, in the wake of the preliminary referendum result.
That result, revealed yesterday, showed 53.1 per cent voting "no" on legalising cannabis for personal recreational use, while 46.1 per cent voted "yes".
The final result won't be announced until next Friday, November 6, which will include 480,000-odd special votes.
But Little said about 70 per cent of those would have to have ticked "yes" to flip the result.
"The probability of that is so low as to be virtually non-existent."
Green MP Chloe Swarbrick was more hopeful, saying a big enough swing to make it a "yes" result was "plausible".
And she took a subtle dig at Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's refusal - until yesterday - to reveal that she voted "yes".
"I'm in the Greens because I have the courage of my convictions," Swarbrick said.
The cannabis referendum result was welcomed by the Say Nope to Dope campaign and the National Party.
"It's good news for young people they are not going to be included in a social experiment. We can leave that to the Americans and Canadians," campaign spokesman Aaron Ironside said.
Auckland councillor Efeso Collins, who backed the "no" campaign, said he supported decriminalisation of cannabis, while proponents of reform including the Drug Foundation also said the result was a mandate to decriminalise.
Swarbrick also pointed to the independent reviews of the justice system in recent years that have called for the scrapping of criminal penalties for drug use.
But Little said the voting public had spoken. "We have to respect that decision."
He said there would be a review of the drug law changes that came into effect in August last year, which he described as "as close as we get to effective decriminalisation".
Those changes, described at the time as a game-changer for making drug use a health issue, mean police should only prosecute drug users if it's in the public interest.
But since they were implemented, only about 10.7 per cent of people caught with drugs are being given a health referral.
That is based on police data, provided to the Herald under the Official Information Act, for police action against those facing drug use/possession as their most serious alleged offence.
Little said he expected people with drug possession as their most serious charge should "almost automatically" be given a health referral.
"That doesn't on the face of it appear to be what's happening. There's grounds to review what is happening to make sure it meets the expectations of the law change that was put in place.
"On the face of it, it [10.7 per cent] sounds low, but I'd want to dig under that and see what the detail is."
The law change has also seen police prosecutions for drug use fall while the use of police warnings has increased.
But it has not changed the inequitable application of the law against Māori, who are three times more likely to be arrested and convicted of a cannabis-related crime than non-Māori.
Tanczos said young, brown men were often wrongly targeted by police.
"There's a certain demographic to be stopped and searched for cannabis. The lawyers and the accountants, it doesn't happen to them.
"They don't get pulled over in their BMWs or Audis, but young men, particularly young brown men - the police do use this as a tool to get into their pockets."