At this year’s General Election, New Zealanders will have the opportunity to vote in the Cannabis Legalisation and Control referendum.Voters will be asked whether they support the proposed Bill, which legalises the recreational use of cannabis. The Bill aims to reduce cannabis-related harm to individuals, whānau and communities by establishing a regulatory regime which controls the cultivation, processing, sale and consumption of cannabis.
To bring to light a broader, non-politicised perspective, the Equal Justice Project hosted a symposium to discuss the Bill. Professor Mark Henaghan served as moderator. The panellists were Associate Professor Khylee Quince, Dr Marta Rychert, James Farmer QC, and Associate Professor Chris Wilkins. They presented the advantages and disadvantages of cannabis reform, discussed concerns regarding legalisation, and provided advice for voters. By looking back on what the panellists had to say, we can take the time to canvas the landscape of debate surrounding the reform, and review what the voters need to know.
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 classifies cannabis as a Class C drug. Those convicted of possessing cannabis without holding a medical license could be liable to imprisonment not exceeding three months, or a maximum fine of $500.
The Bill would permit individuals to possess and consume cannabis in limited circumstances. Essentially, a person aged 20 years or older would be able to:
Public education surrounding the reform can serve as an efficient tool of prevention. From a legal perspective, Associate Professor Quince states that the ‘current prohibition regime does not work.’ In her view, illegality does not actually prevent cannabis consumption, as 80 percent of New Zealanders still use cannabis at some point in their lives, while 20 percent use it regularly. Therefore, legalisation can potentially normalise conversations around cannabis, encouraging and increasing access to public health education about its benefits and potential harms.
The reform could help reduce adverse criminal justice outcomes involving conviction and imprisonment for cannabis use. There was much discussion around the proportionality of the current penalties among the panellists. Certain communities (Māori in particular) are disproportionately impacted, and have been for a long time, by what some argue are ‘needless convictions’ for cannabis use and cultivation. Given that Māori are twice as likely to have used cannabis than non-Māori in the last twelve months (check out https://www.healthnothandcuffs.nz/why_is_this_an_issue_for_maori), the health and justice harms of cannabis disproportionately impact them. The Bill seeks to redress these issues of social inequality. Not only will it reduce arrests, but specific provisions oblige not-for-profit and community-oriented operators to partner with communities that have been disproportionately affected by the current prohibition, as stated by Dr Rychert.
The panellists were concerned with the execution of the Bill. While the prohibition of cannabis is simple to legislate, regulating and legislating its use presents challenges. Its execution in New Zealand is unable to be aided by overseas research due to the lagged nature of health and social effects. Associate Professor Quince mentions that legalisation may also conflict with other public health goals such as Smokefree 2025, and it is unclear which policy will take precedence.
Contrary to common belief, cannabis has a much lower health risk than tobacco and alcohol. Associate Professor Wilkins reports that the harm caused by cannabis depends on the frequency of use and any preexisting conditions. Among the population, youth are a vulnerable group. Early on-set users are likely to become dependent on cannabis, and such behaviour is likely to impact education and employment prospects. While the recreational use of cannabis will remain illegal for those under 20, Associate Professor Quince is concerned that normalisation and contamination of adults using cannabis in their households may cause health implications for children.
Some panellists expressed concern that legalising cannabis use could lead to an alcohol-style market. Experience with alcohol and tobacco demonstrates that incentives to increase the market motivate the commercial industry to push back on restrictive measures such as age limits, as highlighted by Dr Rychert. In order to mediate future conflicts between health and commercial interests, Associate Professor Wilkins emphasises the importance of seeking middle ground options which control commercialisation. Dr Rychert further suggests the involvement of non-profit organisations.
While the black market may have cost advantages, Associate Professors Wilkins and Quince agree that there is not enough research and evidence in the field to support the fear that legalising cannabis will lead the black market to heavier drugs. They are of the opinion that new users and sellers are unlikely to enter the black market upon the legalisation of cannabis, as the meth market is smaller and more competitive.
Associate Professor Quince notes that on balance, the legalisation of cannabis provides an opportunity to address justice and equity outcomes. Therefore, it is crucial that ‘irrespective of which way you vote, you know what is in the Bill, you know what the options are and what you are voting for.’
Similarly, Associate Professor Wilkins advises voters to consider the effects on social justice.
He encourages voters to ask themselves this; Are the current penalties for using cannabis appropriate, fair and proportionate, or could we as a nation and society do better by regulating cannabis instead of prohibiting it?
In Mr Farmer’s view, there are two main things he hopes voters will consider. Firstly, voters should be clear of the health harms related to using cannabis. Secondly, they should contemplate whether legalisation will enhance or reduce these problems.
As cannabis is not a harmless product, Dr Rychert encourages voters to think about the different criteria which underlie the debate of cannabis. These include the black market, criminal enterprises, personal choice, and public health.
The intersection of issues and interests presented by the panellists reflects the complexity of the cannabis debate. The Equal Justice Project hopes that by providing a diverse range of perspectives, voters will be able to make an informed decision in the upcoming Cannabis Legalisation and Control referendum.
*This piece was originally published by The Equal Justice Project: https://www.equaljusticeproject.co.nz/articles/highs-and-lows-breaking-down-the-cannabis-referendumnbsp2020?fbclid=IwAR3YXkj-c3K46a75GVq4VxC-Vbo2YJf7sg8qGHtmHHMijo_5RutGBEgXqf4