By Eleanor Ainge Roy, The Guardian 

New Zealanders have voted not to legalise cannabis in a referendum that painted a portrait of a country starkly divided over drug policy.

The yes vote for legalising cannabis finished with 48.4% of the vote, trailing the no vote on 50.7% – or just 67,662 votes out of 2.9m.

In the lead-up to the October election polls showed a country divided, with support for legalising cannabis ranging between 30-50%.

In the non-binding referendum, voters were asked to decide whether they wanted to pass a bill that would legalise cannabis and regulate how it is used and sold. This would have included producing and selling fresh and dried cannabis, including plants and seeds – for people over 20 years old. The change would also have imposed more stringent restrictions than the rules around sales of alcohol and tobacco.

Andrew Geddis, a law professor at the University of Otago, said while there was no legal imperative for an incoming government to abide by the referendum result, it would be “pretty hard for them not to act” on the vote.

The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has repeatedly refused to state her position on cannabis but said she would let the public know how she had voted once the results were released.