As well as choosing a new government, October’s election gives us the opportunity to support or oppose the legalisation of euthanasia and recreational use of cannabis. Here, Kali Mercier of the NZ Drug Foundation argues for a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum on the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.
Statistically, it’s highly likely that you’ve used cannabis and that your adult grandchildren have. The Christchurch and Otago longitudinal studies, the most authoritative in New Zealand, found nearly 80 percent of New Zealanders try it at some point in their lives.
The referendum is the best chance we have to fix the outdated and damaging way that we manage cannabis in our society. The referendum will ask you to support the government’s Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, which puts public health regulation in place to minimise the social and health harms of cannabis. The law has a special focus on protecting young New Zealanders.
Cannabis is illegal in Aotearoa yet anyone can buy it easily. 590,000 New Zealanders used it last year alone. Because cannabis is illegal, we have no control over it. The purpose of the referendum is to put those controls in place, from seed to sale.
This is not about creating a new market or encouraging people to use. In fact, one of the goals of the legislation is to reduce cannabis use over time. With cannabis legal we can work towards specific health and social outcomes. For example, we can impact use patterns by setting price limits, potency limits, rules around packaging, quality control, age limits and many more.
Then there’s the estimated $490 million of new taxes that can be put towards health and education for all New Zealanders. A levy will be put aside specifically to fund cannabis-related education, prevention and treatment. That money is currently going direct to the illicit market, untaxed.
If New Zealanders vote Yes, police will be freed up to focus on serious crime. Each year we spend almost $200 million on cannabis enforcement and convictions – this could be put to better use. The law change would mean thousands fewer New Zealanders convicted each year.
For me, the compassionate argument is also compelling. Cannabis can be an effective medicine for a range of conditions, including epilepsy, chronic pain, and nausea from some cancer treatments. While medicinal cannabis is technically legal in New Zealand with a prescription, there are few products available and they are prohibitively expensive. Patients are still turning to the illicit market, with all the risks and stress that entails.
Overseas experience shows clearly that legal cannabis would mean more affordable and easier access to a wider range of products. That’s why patient groups are advocating so hard for a change to the law.
Finally, please ask yourself this – if your child or grandchild were to run into trouble with drugs, would you want them to be offered a health response or would you like the criminal law to step in, with all its blunt trauma? If they choose to use cannabis – as most will do – would you prefer them to use regulated products that have been tested for safety, or something that is untested and unquantified? Would you prefer them to buy from gangs or from a licensed vendor, with taxes going to health and education?
Legalisation means taking our responsibilities as a mature social democracy seriously, and putting controls around a substance that is currently left to the black market.
- What’s your view? Contribute to the debate through the ‘Comment’ box below.