Written By Brad Wood ( Nelson Anglican Diocese)
Things to consider ahead of the Cannabis Referendum
The draft Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill to be voted on at the September referendum is publicly available on the government’s website, together with a summary of the key points. This referendum is non-binding and considers the use, sale, growth, supply and distribution of recreational cannabis. The referendum is not about medicinal cannabis; laws around medicinal cannabis use came into effect in April 2020.
What is agreed on in respect to cannabis use.
Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in New Zealand.(1) New Zealanders are second only to North Americans when it comes to cannabis use globally. (2) Recreational cannabis use causes a range of harms. It is claimed that the main purpose of the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill is “to reduce cannabis-related harm to individuals, families/whānau and communities”.
These harms include:
• Functional changes in the brain, leading to permanent impairment in cognition, which include the ability to learn, remember, concentrate and reason. (3) The resulting educational underachievement increases the risk of unemployment and exacerbates the cycle of social disadvantage.
• An association between adolescent cannabis use and the development of psychosis in users that are genetically predisposed. (4)
• Detrimental oral, dental and respiratory effects from smoking cannabis. (5)
• Psychoactive effects, which alter perception, mood, consciousness and behaviour, that may impact the safety of the user and others in certain circumstances, e.g. driving a motor vehicle, operating machinery.
• A criminal conviction for cannabis use, which has serious repercussions for a person’s future, narrowing life opportunities by making it more difficult to get employment, travel and to move into more life-affirming and sustainable social spaces. Levels of such social harm may be disproportionate to an individual’s offending. (6) Harms from a punitive approach to cannabis use also extend beyond the individual concerned, affecting families and communities. It is agreed that criminal sanctions do not deter people from using recreational cannabis.
• Biase towards Māori, shown through disproportionate prosecution/conviction rates and the use of Police discretionary powers to not prosecute.(7, 8)
Things to consider.
• The argument that legalising recreational cannabis will help address the biased rates of prosecution for cannabis related offences toward Māori is misleading. Clearly, reducing prosecution numbers will alleviate some negative impact on Māori, just as it will alleviate that impact for everyone. However, research in jurisdictions that have legalised cannabis, including all 11 jurisdictions of the USA, shows that while the overall number of convictions fall considerably across all demographics, marginalised minority groups are still disproportionately represented in conviction figures.
• The draft bill seeks “to reduce cannabis-related harm to individuals, families/whānau and communities”. This is to be achieved by: “eliminating the illegal supply of cannabis; raising awareness of the health risks associated with cannabis use; restricting young people's access to cannabis; improving access to health and social services, and other kinds of support for families/whanau; making sure the response to any breach of the law is fair”.
Evidence does not support the argument that the black-market and its associated gang involvement will disappear with the legalisation of cannabis. In Canada and California, government-authorised sellers are unable to keep up with the newly created cannabis demand, and government prices are higher than those of the blackmarket. The range of cannabis products available is greater on the black-market, and the black-market continues to thrive.(9)
• The ‘Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill’ sets the legal age of use at 20 years. The question is, will this guarantee the safety of younger people? Current New Zealand statistics show that half of all New Zealanders with a substance dependence issue are already dependent by the time they are 19 years old. 10 The most common age of first drug use in New Zealand is between 15 and 17 years of age: almost one in five drug users were 14 years or younger when they first tried drugs. (11)
Research shows a significant increase in adolescent cannabis-associated emergency department and urgent care visits following legalisation, with greater numbers of young people requiring treatment for acute medical or psychiatric symptoms following cannabis use.(12)
• “Raising awareness of the health risks associated with cannabis use” can be done without legalisation.
• While the draft Bill states “access to health and social services, and other kinds of support for families/whanau” will be improved, there is no indication how this will be done.
• Addressing cannabis-related harms requires more than regulation within a health framework. The NZ Drug Foundation, who advocate for a legalised, regulated cannabis market13 have acknowledged that social factors such as housing, work, economic development and keeping young people in school are significant factors in avoiding involvement with cannabis. (14)
Is there another way forward?
Cannabis use is widespread and its use causes harm, but is legalisation the best way to address these harms? A constructive way forward may be to take time to explore and publicly discuss decriminalisation of recreational cannabis. Decriminalisation would facilitate the separation of cannabis use from issues of social justice and health, providing space in which the work of peoples’ well-being could be better addressed.
The referendum question will ask:
Yes, I support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill
No, I do not support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill
A “No” vote to the referendum question followed by public discussion on the decriminalisation of cannabis may be a better way forward.
Dr Deborah Stevens and Dr Lynne Bowyer are co-directors of The New Zealand Centre for Science and Citizenship Trust.
Further information on Cannabis and the referendum InterChurch Bioethics Council of New Zealand website:
This resource contains discussion questions and activities. An expert panel, which include the Prime Minister’s Science Advisor, has information on what might happen if cannabis is legalised.
A copy of the draft Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill is available at: https://www.beehive.govt.nz/sites/default/files/2019- 12/Cannabis%20Legalisation%20and%20Control%20Bill.pdf
1 Kiwis World’s Top Cannabis Smokers. NZ Herald June 2012 https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10815874
2 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime - World Drug Report 2020 https://wdr.unodc.org/wdr2020/field/WDR20_Booklet_2.pdf
3 Dr Richie Poulton, 6 June, 2020 https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday/audio/2018749540/how-doescannabis-use-affect-new-zealanders-health
4 Richie Poulton, Kirsten Robertson, Joseph Boden, John Horwood, Reremoana Theodore, Tuari Potiki & Antony Ambler (2020) Patterns of recreational cannabis use in Aotearoa- New Zealand and their consequences: evidence to inform voters in the 2020 referendum, Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 50:2, 348-365, DOI: 10.1080/03036758.2020.1750435
6 Eaqueb, S (2019). Estimating the impact of drug policy options: Moving from a criminal to a health-based model, p.8. Available at https://www.drugfoundation.org.nz/assets/uploads/Cost-benefit-analysis-drug-law-reform.pdf Last accessed 28 June 2019
7 Theodore R, Ratima M, Boden J, Potiki T, Poulton R. 2020. Cannabis, the cannabis referendum and rangitahi Mãori: a lifecourse perspective. Kõtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences. doi:10.1080/1177083X.
8 Boden J. Cannabis: what you need to know 2018 https://www.otago.ac.nz/otagomagazine/issue47/opinion/otago696401.html
9 Kevin Sabet and Will Jones. Marijuana Legalisation in the United States: A social Injustice. https://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1060&context=jlpa p.19.
11 http://riskgroup.co.nz/Drug_Dogs/Schools.html and Note the term ‘drugs’ here – not specifically cannabis.
12 G.S. Wang, S.D. Davies, L.S. Almo, A. Sass, R.D. Mistry. ‘Impact of Marijuana Legalisation in Colorado on Adolescent Emergency and Urgent Care Visits’. Journal of Adolescent Health (2018). https://www.jahonline.org/article/S1054- 139X(18)30004-1/fulltext.
14 Briefing to the Incoming Parliament 2017. New Zealand Drug Foundation. https://www.drugfoundation.org.nz/policyand-advocacy/briefing-to-the-incoming-parliament/