This article was updated on 7 April 2021
The 29th of September was a day of many debates, varying in terms of both substance and importance; in the U.S city of Cleveland, Donald Trump and Joe Biden engaged in the first Presidential debate of the U.S 2020 election cycle; at the Q Theatre in Auckland’s CBD, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and National Party leader Judith Collins faced each other in the second leader’s debate of our own election cycle; and within the University of Auckland’s Owen G Glenn Building (OGGB), an array of politicians from across the political spectrum met to debate possible drug reforms. While the former debates may have been of greater importance than the AUSA’s debate, given the upcoming cannabis referendum, and dearth of coverage of the event, it’s worth considering both the substance and nature of the latter.
Hosted by the AUSA and moderated by Martyn Bradbury of The Daily Blog, the debate largely revolved around the upcoming cannabis referendum. Speaking in favour of the legalisation of cannabis were Chloe Swarbrick, MP from the Green Party; Shai Navot, deputy leader of The Opportunities Party (TOP); Michael Wood, MP from the Labour Party; and Christopher Coker, of Legalise Cannabis Aotearoa. Speaking against the referendum was Simeon Brown, MP from the National Party. The debate also featured Robert Gore, a representative of New Zealand First who refused to state his position on the referendum, instead choosing to support the idea of a referendum.
The speakers in favour of the legalisation of cannabis largely focused on two areas; the need to pursue an evidence-based approach to drug reform which prioritises the treatment of addiction as a health issue and the failures of existing drug policies.
In a particularly interesting exchange about the need to pursue a harm reduction approach to drug reform, Michael Wood noted that the taxation of cannabis would provide the government with the ability to effectively invest in services which reduce the negative consequences of the consumption of drugs. In response to this comment, Simeon Brown suggested that investments in harm reduction services were needed before any conversation could be had about the legalisation of cannabis. While this argument may appear to be convincing on the surface, Shai Navot pointed out that neither the previous National government nor the current Labour government had made sufficient investments in this area, resulting in an environment which fails to reduce the harm caused by the consumption of drugs, while criminalising users of the substances.
The section of the debate that dealt with the failures of existing drug policies largely focused on the Psychoactive Substances Act and the subsequent creation of a black market for synthetic drugs, where substances with a higher than normal potencies are commonly sold. Chloe Swarbrick pointed out that the ban on synthetic drugs caused the sale of the substances to occur within an unregulated black market, given that the previous structures that had governed the sale of synthetic drugs had been eliminated. On the other hand, Brown, in keeping with his “War on Drugs” rhetoric, argued that the cause of the growth of an unregulated black market arose as a consequence of the initial difference in penalties between the supply of cannabis and synthetic substances. Brown also argued that classifying some forms of synthetic cannabis as Class A drugs, which occurred in 2018, reduced their availability and harm.
This section of the debate also touched on the disproportionate effect which the criminalisation of cannabis has on marginalised communities. In particular, the disproportionate application of the criminalisation of cannabis to Māori communities was highlighted by both Michael Wood and Chloe Swarbrick. While Simeon Brown did not dispute this, he argued that the legalisation of cannabis would result in marginalised communities being targeted as consumers of cannabis.
In totality, the debate highlighted the often-repeated key arguments that are made in similar cannabis reform debates. While interesting, it may not have done much to sway opinion on the issue.