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Weighing up the cannabis referendum – is the current law working?

Weighing up the cannabis referendum – is the current law working?

By Nándor Tánczos
Trustee, Make It Legal Aotearoa New Zealand

 

When it comes to cannabis, I think most New Zealanders want more or less the same things.

We don’t want young people using cannabis. While the evidence is clear that most people use cannabis without problems, the few that do almost always started young and use heavily.

We want those people that do have drug problems to be helped rather than punished. Currently places in drug treatment services are hard to get, and almost non-existent outside of the main centres.

We don’t want to be wasting police time on arresting adults for simply enjoying cannabis. Freedom for adults to make their own decisions is a basic value, as long as they are not harming other people or putting other people at risk.

This September New Zealanders will get to vote on how best to achieve those outcomes. We can stick with how things are now, or move to a regulated market. The regulated model on offer is an improved version of Canada. It has a lot of carefully thought-through details so please do have a look at it. Consider both choices, to see which gets us closer to our goals. Have a look at what the independent research tells us about how best to manage cannabis.

When it comes to young people using cannabis, it has been normalised for decades. Cannabis is widespread and easy for young people to get hold. The Christchurch and Dunedin longitudinal studies at the University of Otago have given us some of the best evidence in the world around cannabis use. Their summary of the research can be found at cannabisreferendum.co.nz. They show that around 80% of New Zealanders have tried cannabis by age 25. While most people use cannabis without harm, a small number do experience problems. These are people who started young and use heavily.

We cannot stop young people using cannabis entirely, just as it is impossible to stop them drinking alcohol. We can make it more difficult for them to get hold of though. Having an age limit helps. In Canada, according to official Government figures,

“… use among Canadian youth has not increased. This accords with the Colorado experience—the first to legalize non-medical cannabis…. (while) use among 15- to 17-year-olds declined (19.8% to 10.4%).”

Statistics Canada

Being illegal means no controls, no age limit. It brings young people who do try cannabis into contact with a criminal underworld. Regulating the market by making it R20 won’t stop young people trying cannabis entirely, but it will make it harder for them to get into a pattern of risky use.

For the small number of people who do end up having problems with cannabis use, we need better drug education and drug treatment services. The economist Shamubeel Eaqub has estimated that we need another $150 million spent on drug treatment to meet current needs. The potential tax from cannabis sales (estimated at between $250 million to almost half a billion dollars) has been ring-fenced for drug harm reduction.

Finally, most people do not want to see their friends and neighbours being arrested for simply enjoying cannabis. We still arrest thousands of people a year for cannabis use in NZ, and there are even people in prison for growing their own. That is not usually any of the lawyers, doctors or accountants who enjoy cannabis. They rarely get searched by the police and if they do, get off with a warning. It is most likely to be someone poor and brown, for whom a cannabis conviction and fine can be life-destroying.

Arresting people for cannabis doesn’t stop them using it. In fact research shows that people are MORE likely to use it after being charged. The only people who the law inhibits from using cannabis, the only people for whom regular use goes up after legalisation, are the over-65’s. Perhaps this is because they now feel ok about trying it as a medicine for those aches and pains. Maybe it is because they have worked hard all their lives and deserve to enjoy a relatively benign recreational drug that makes them laugh.

And who could have a problem with that?

Guest Blog: How we’re gonna win!

Guest Blog: How we’re gonna win!

By Rebecca Reider
Trustee, Make It Legal Aotearoa New Zealand

The cannabis referendum on October 17th is just around the corner! The polls are showing we have a decent shot at winning, but it is by no means guaranteed. All we can be sure of is that it’s likely to be a very close race. Every single vote matters.

So if we’re going to win this thing, we all need to activate the people around us to vote yes.

Does that mean you have to get into an hours-long argument with some random person who has bizarre stereotypes about ‘dopeheads’? No! There are way more effective ways to use your energy. So here are some ideas.

Enroll

Make sure all the young people in your life are enrolled to vote. Young people are by far the most supportive of legalising cannabis. But history shows that young people also have the lowest voting rates! This is a problem. We need to mobilise young voters. Send them a message, remind them when election day is. Show them how easy it is to enrol to vote on vote.nz. (Seriously, it is SO easy. I just updated my details online there because I just moved house; it took me a total of three minutes, and all I needed was my name, address and driver’s licence.)

Have a Vote Party

Once everyone’s enrolled they still need to be reminded to vote! Election Day (Sept 19) is on a Saturday. This is a historic opportunity to have our say… so why not celebrate it with a voting party? Get everyone together for an afternoon hangout or BBQ, then go vote together at 4.20pm. (But save the cannabis for AFTER you all vote!)

Talk to your elders

Polls show that the older generation are more likely to vote no. But often this is based on misinformation because they simply haven’t had anyone explain why the referendum makes sense. Talk to elder people you have a relationship with, particularly family members, in a respectful way.

Choose your moments. Don’t waste your energy on someone who is ranting, incoherent, and never in a million years going to vote yes. Talk to people who have sincere concerns and see if you can help them reconsider.

Understand your audience. Listen to people’s genuine concerns if they’re not sure which way to vote, and take them seriously.

If you’re talking to someone who’s on the fence, and they’re saying “I’m concerned about young people accessing cannabis,” it’s not going to help if you say “Hey, we all have a right to choose what we put in our bodies!”…. because if you say that, you’re not addressing the values or concerns of your audience. In this example, it would be much more helpful to explain that legalisation with a regulated market will actually keep young people safer – people under 20 won’t be able to buy cannabis, and when they do turn 20, they’ll have access to cannabis that is controlled for safety and potency rather than getting unknown stuff from a tinny house. (You could also mention that multiple overseas studies have shown that legalising cannabis for adults does not increase youth use of cannabis!)

Know your stuff.

You don’t have to become an expert on legalisation, but if you learn even a little bit, you’re going to know more than most people you talk to. Being knowledgeable can help you stay calm, and that will help reassure anyone you’re talking with. Here are some resources to check out, depending how far you want to go:

Our brief explainer of what’s in the bill

The case for yes – The Helen Clark Foundation’s explanation of why a yes vote makes sense for New Zealand

The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor’s balanced analysis of the likely results if we pass the referendum

The government’s detailed explanation of what’s in the bill

Get out on the streets

One of the most fun ways to raise awareness for the cause is to get out in public with some Make It Legal signs. It’s not that hard – all you need is a few mates and a spare hour of time (or less – or more!). Stand on a busy street corner, look happy, wave your signs, enjoy people tooting their horns at you in support! Seeing public displays like this, from people like you, helps the public feel like voting yes is a mainstream and relatable thing to do. Contact us if you’d like a sign.

Explain the process

Understand the process, and explain it to others. Many people seem anxious about the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill (that’s the legislation that the referendum would send to Parliament) because they don’t understand the process. The referendum will NOT immediately legalise cannabis.

It is only the first step, which will get the government to introduce legislation to Parliament. There will be a Select Committee process where the public can make submissions and influence the legislation. So for cannabis users who think the bill isn’t perfect and therefore don’t want to support it – relax, we need to pass the referendum first and then we can work to improve the bill. And for conservative folks who are scared this is all moving too fast – you can tell them to relax, this is only step one in the conversation. If we don’t pass the referendum, though, we don’t get to have that conversation in Parliament at all.

A Bill to vote YES on…

A Bill to vote YES on…

The Cannabis Leglaisation and Control Bill has been released. This is the Bill that you will be voting on.

At the general election, on your ballot paper, will be a question:

Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?

You can choose 1 of these 2 answers:

  • Yes, I support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill
  • No, I do not support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill

The Bill is summarised in this infographic:

More information can be found here: https://www.referendums.govt.nz/cannabis/summary.html

The Case for Yes

The Case for Yes

Report by the Helen Clark Foundation setting out the case for a Yes vote in the 2020 cannabis referendum.

From the introduction:
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.

This paper argues that the status quo is unacceptable, and seeks to ask how we can 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 for possession and use alone continue for those unlucky enough to get caught.

The current approach to cannabis inflicts excessive punishment on those users who face prosecution who, in turn, are disproportionately Māori. In this 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.

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 in the market 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. Overall our analysis argues that the disproportionately adverse effects of current policies on cannabis use justify putting in place legalisation and effective regulation.

Drug Policy and Deprivation of Liberty

Drug Policy and Deprivation of Liberty

Drug Policy and Deprivation of Liberty

Drug Policy and Deprivation of Liberty

The new position paper by the Global Commission on Drug Policy shows how the deprivation of liberty for non-violent drug crimes is a wrong and ineffective response, notably because it does not take into account the social and psychological root causes of drug consumption, nor does it consider the economic and social marginalization of low-level actors in the trade. Furthermore, people who are incarcerated are vulnerable, exposed to risks, particularly health risks, for which they are not well-equipped and do not receive adequate care.

In this report, members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy analyze the last thirty years of over incarceration in closed settings, from prisons to migrant administrative detention and from mandatory treatment to private rehabilitation centers. The paper highlights the responsibility of the State towards people who are incarcerated, and demonstrates how their health and well-being are at risk.

Download the paper here

Responsible Legal Regulation

Responsible Legal Regulation

What does responsible legal regulation mean?
Under a model with legal regulation, cannabis related activities (use, possession, cultivation, sale etc) are no longer criminal activities, but regulated through administrative laws, as is the case for other products such as alcohol and tobacco.

While offences still occur, these are not criminal offences, but related to failing to adhere to regulations. For example – a person may grow cannabis at home for personal use legally, but if they sell it, they may be fined for unlicensed sale. Or if a licensed supplier sells to a child, they may be prosecuted and fined for underage selling, and have their license revoked.

Legal regulation itself covers a range of scenarios from strict regulation (such as with the regulation of hazardous substances or medicines containing opiates) to responsible regulation (as proposed for cannabis) through to lax regulation (such as with alcohol) and then on to unrestricted access (such as with ice creams and soft drinks). This can be seen in the graph above, taken from Regulation: The responsible Control of Drugs by the Global Commissions on Drug Policy, showing the range of models from decriminalisation through to unrestricted access, and the level of harm each model is likely to result in.

Responsible legal regulation is what is proposed for cannabis.