Kathy Errington: The case for yes in the cannabis referendum

This article was originally published on the New Zealand Herald.

In 2020, New Zealanders will have the chance to make a historic decision about whether or not to change the way we regulate personal cannabis use. If we miss this opportunity, the chance may pass for a generation.

Cannabis use is a reality in New Zealand, and the results of our current policy approach damage our health, worsen social equity, and drive crime. On 4 September the Helen Clark Foundation will release a paper that argues that the status quo is unacceptable, and seeks to ask how we can we do better? Our answer is that we should move to a health-based approach with robust regulation, effective public health education, and adequate service provision.

Our key criteria for any policy are: what will best improve health and equity while reducing harm?

Evidence suggests that up to eighty per cent of New Zealanders will use cannabis at least once before turning 25, making cannabis the most commonly used illicit drug in New Zealand. Yet cannabis remains an illegal drug, and prosecutions continue for those unlucky enough to get caught.

The current approach to cannabis inflicts excessive punishment on those who face prosecution who, in turn, are disproportionately Māori. Māori aged 17 to 25 account for 37 per cent of all convictions for drug possession.

The legal prohibition on cannabis also drives people towards more potent and riskier substances.

Since June 2017, New Zealand has witnessed several dozen deaths related to synthetic cannabinoids’ use, as reported by the coroner. The legalisation and regulation of cannabis actually has the potential to reduce the use and harms related to potent synthetic cannabinoids.

The “iron law of prohibition” refers to how the criminalisation of drugs leads to the consumption of more potent substances, with both suppliers and users not willing to take risks with the law for low-potency substances, and they may prefer to carry smaller and more easily concealable substances. As a result, more potent illegal drugs appear on the market, such as has been the case with fentanyl and its derivatives as street opioids in the United States and Canada, the emergence of the synthetic cannabinoid “spice” in the UK to replace plant-based cannabis, and the levels of THC in cannabis reaching seventeen per cent in Europe (up from eight per cent a decade earlier).

We think that a yes vote in the referendum in 2020 will allow for the sale of quality-controlled cannabis, will help to lift the stigma and discrimination which pushes people into risky behaviours and into buying more potent, if smaller, quantities of synthetic cannabinoids, and, most importantly, will allow for better scientific research and findings on problematic use of synthetic cannabinoids. Access by researchers both to the substance and users is hampered at present by the legal prohibition on cannabis.

In our paper, we argue that New Zealanders of all political persuasions should follow the evidence of what works and what doesn’t. The evidence points to a vote in support of cannabis legalisation and regulation in 2020.

This does not mean necessarily moving to a Colorado style commercial market. New Zealand can look to a range of examples – including the state monopoly model from Uruguay where the government is the only legal buyer of cannabis, and it is then sold exclusively through registered pharmacies. A tightly regulated commercial market is an alternative approach, with license limits imposed for individuals and companies. We believe this decision about market structure deserves more public attention and debate.

Our view is that the New Zealand Government should adopt an approach to cannabis use which sees it as a health and social issue and not a criminal one. Regulation should seek to prevent the emergence of major corporate interests which would have a profit motive to undermine public health objectives. In this respect New Zealand can learn from its experience with regulating tobacco and alcohol. Bans on advertising, sponsorship and mandated plain packaging can help protect public health.

Overall our analysis argues that the disproportionately adverse effects of current policies on cannabis use justify putting in place legalisation and effective regulation. In other words, please vote yes in the 2020 referendum!