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Why cannabis ‘Yes’ vote is crucial

Opinion Piece

by Briar Dunn

Briar Dunn

Let’s be real — the current illegal status of cannabis is not stopping anyone from using it. In fact, 80 percent of New Zealanders have tried the drug before they hit 30. It’s the most widely used recreational drug internationally, with no signs of slowing down. New Zealanders are some of the top marijuana users in the world.

The proposed law would make cannabis legal in New Zealand for people aged 20 or over and would regulate how it is grown, how it is used, and how it is sold. The restrictions that would be put in place are arguably the strictest out of all countries and states that have legalised.

It’s clear to see that the current illegality status of cannabis does not act as a deterrent, even after arrest or conviction. Instead, it acts as a significant barrier to prevent those in need of seeking help for addiction to do so without the risk of conviction.

Racialised policing in New Zealand is no more prevalent than in the overrepresentation of Maori in all areas of the criminal justice system. Our current drug laws survive on the inherent racism that accompany them. Maori are three times more likely to be pulled over, charged, and convicted for the same drug possession charge that Pakeha individuals would be let go on. Not only that, a single cannabis conviction for a Maori individual has severe long-term impacts including societal exclusion in employment and education. To look after the health of New Zealanders through rehabilitation and reduce the disparities between Maori and Pakeha in the criminal justice system, legalisation of cannabis is essential.

The irony is that when we compare the impacts of alcohol on your body, some may argue that alcohol is significantly worse — yet this substance is legal and widely used. The regulated, low-THC form of cannabis that would be legal is likely to be far less harmful to health than both alcohol and tobacco.

Why is it that a highly-addictive drug like alcohol is legalised and government regulated, yet cannabis isn’t?

There are always going to be people who over-use and abuse drugs. What’s most important is that there is sufficient education of risks for those who may want to use, and rehabilitation opportunities for those who want it.

Legalisation allows the education system to provide effective education of the risks associated with cannabis, including the possible mental health impairments on adolescents who use. This education allows young people to make a non-stigmatised, informed decision when it comes to cannabis, rather than being told to abstain because it’s illegal. Comfortingly, research from Canada has shown that there was no increase in young people or heavy users using cannabis when it became legalised.

Some people may argue against the legalisation of cannabis due to their personal experience seeing the harm that addiction has caused, however cannabis is not being invented through this referendum. It has been around for many years and is here to stay.

Instead of trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist, New Zealand needs to start reducing the harm it has or may cause. A vote “Yes” doesn’t mean everyone will be smoking cannabis, it’s simply opening up avenues to educate, rehabilitate and allow users to enjoy responsibly and legally.

■ Briar is a third-year criminology student at the University of Auckland. Her iwi is Ngati Kahungunu.

  1. A McKellow says:

    Lungs, either created or evolved, depending on one’s viewpoint, were made to work on clean fresh air.
    Contaminating the source for oxygenating our organs seems rather stupid. We realised that with tobacco yet rush to replace that drug with another. Makes no sense.
    There are plenty of other ways of reducing a drug’s harm without legalising it.
    Decriminalisation is one, but it is disingenuous to remove the tax off one drug and replace it with one on another and try to pretend that the revenue will be targeted well enough to solve all the problems that a drug brings.
    To render the argument of majority use has little validity.
    The truth is the truth no matter how few believe it. A lie is a lie no matter how many believe it.
    Dope causes not just psychological harm but economic and physical harm also.
    It is society that is harmed, not just the individual.

    1. Matthew Elrod says:

      Ironically, the Misuse of Drugs Act prohibits edibles and vaporisers, thus encouraging smoking.

      As Briar pointed out, the referendum isn’t asking voters if cannabis should be invented, or if they approve of or recommend non-medical cannabis use. It’s asking if cannabis should be left under the control of unaccountable criminals or taxed and regulated more strictly than tobacco. If prohibition is better than legal regulation, then the government is negligent for not putting criminals in charge of alcohol, tobacco and other potentially harmful products.

      1. A McKellow says:

        If legalization occurs there will be two sources of this drug available to people who want to use it. One will be a taxed source the other untaxed and still illegal as it is now.
        Market forces will dictate where it is obtained, but it will be delusional to think that the illegal trade will just disappear.
        If by some chance that does occur then it will be state sanctioned mental illness, driving under the influence and the other health issues that go with this drug. At the moment that is the domain of others.
        Is the state really no better than these people if the outcomes are the same?

        1. Matthew Elrod says:

          The illicit market is half the size it was two years ago in Canada. It’s less than 20 percent the size it was in Colorado and Washington State in 2012. I’m not sure where one would go to get moonshine whisky, if one wanted it. Obviously I do think it’s better to tax and legally regulate drugs than attempt and fail to prohibit them.

  2. Martin Hanson, Nelson says:

    The purpose of the law is to affect human behaviour – to make people to do what they otherwise might not want to do, or to prevent them doing things they otherwise might do.
    Despite its illegality, young people already have easy access to cannabis. The law is not, therefore, having a significant effect on human behaviour.
    As a 79-year-old who has never used cannabis, caffeine, and alcohol in moderation, it’s difficult to avoid my concluding that much of the opposition to the legalisation of cannabis comes from people who seem to think that the law should be used as an expression of public disapproval.
    There are a great many things of which society disapproves, so why stop with cannabis?