As the lead up to the 2020 cannabis referendum begins, Laura Walters asks how Kiwis can sort legitimate concerns about legalisation from misinformation campaigns.

Campaigns opposing the legalisation of cannabis have begun, and a ‘yes’ vote would see these pushes – likely dominated by the loudest voices – continue well into 2021.

The Government has announced draft legislation will be laid out ahead of the 2020 referendum on whether to legalise cannabis for personal, recreational use.

The preference of the Green Party – the party that brought about the referendum through its confidence and supply agreement – was for the legislation to be passed ahead of the referendum. A ‘yes’ vote would change the law.

Because the coalition didn’t move fast enough – as drug reform is not a priority for all three parties – it has not been left with enough time to get through sound legislation ahead of 2020, and so we are left here.

This means the country will not only debate the pros and cons of cannabis legalisation until polling day, a vote for legalisation will see the debate continue for at least six months while the legislative process plays out – likely with a bit of filibustering.

Politicians who had hoped to avoid talking drugs during the election campaign will be sorely disappointed.

In theory, a long timeframe to debate the specifics of cannabis legalisation, including necessary safeguards and what it means for road safety, schools and young people, workplaces, and Māori is a good thing.

But there is the possibility of ‘cannabis fatigue’, and there’s always the risk that the loudest – or most extreme – voices will dominate the conversation.

New Zealand Drug Foundation director Ross Bell says the cannabis legalisation debate would include extreme views, but Kiwis are good at cutting through any misinformation. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

New Zealand Drug Foundation director Ross Bell said ideally the country will have a evidence-based debate on legitimate issues.

However, the experience in Canada did not suggest this will happen.

“The environment is extreme,” Bell said.

There would be a spectrum of views; there would be fake news; and there would be politicians being politicians. There would also be media who wanted to hype up the conflict, he said.

“That’s the environment where the discussion will take place.”

Whipping up hysteria

These provocative campaigns Bell referred to may have already begun, with the launch of a petition by conservative lobby group Family First.

Earlier in the week, Family First started an online petition calling for an inquiry into “the possible link between cannabis and violence”.

On Thursday afternoon, the petition had more than 2000 signatures. Family first director Bob McCoskrie said he planned to submit the petition in July, and had already discussed this with MPs who have signalled their willingness to accept the petition.

The petition aims to link high-potency cannabis with psychosis, and violence.

Bell described this link as a “long bow”, meanwhile, a book drawing the same conclusion and written by New York Times journalist Alex Berenson, has been rubbished by dozens of experts.

A group of academics from New York University, Harvard Medical School and Columbia University and care providers including addiction medicine doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, called the book “alarmist”, and said there was not a causative link between THC and schizophrenia.

There are legitimate concerns and issues to be debated around the issue of cannabis legalisation, but a new petition launched by Family’s First’s Bob McCoskrie does not do that. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

This idea also perpetuated harmful myths about mental health and violence. When this issue was put to McCoskrie, he referred back to potent marijuana, developed by the industry in order to drive up profits, being linked to schizophrenia.

He did not acknowledge the potential harm caused by over-stating links between psychosis and violence.

There are legitimate issues to be debated around age restrictions, as using cannabis when young could lead to mental health issues. But this was not what the petition is about.

McCoskrie said he did not believe cannabis could be properly regulated if made legal, and instead advocated for a continued criminal approach, where police had discretion to refer people with addiction issues to health services – similar to the proposed changes in the Misuse of drugs Amendment Bill currently before Parliament.

In the end, it did not matter whether an inquiry was held, or what it might found, the marketing smarts was in the suggestive framing of the petition itself. There was also the added bonus of growing the organisation’s email list, as it geared up for what would be a long campaign.

This petition will not be the end of Family First’s campaign, with a planned coalition of organisations opposed to legalisation.

McCoskrie believes the country will vote overwhelmingly against legalisation.

However, a national poll released earlier in the year showed about 60 percent of Kiwis supported legalisation. A previous poll had 55 percent in favour.

Concerned groups

While Bell and others who are in favour of legalisation due to the potential for harm reduction believe Family First’s inquiry call is “scaremongering”, there are legitimate concerns that needed to be hashed out before polling day.

Groups like AA will likely have concerns about drug driving and what legalisation could mean for road safety.

The Government is currently considering this as part of its drug driving policy work.

Employer groups and unions will be concerned about workers who may have used cannabis, or could be impaired at work.

Schools, teachers, and education interest groups would have concerns about what legalisation might mean for children, and the use of drugs at school.

And Māori, particularly older Māori, will be concerned about harm in their communities.

“I’m really dedicated to having a rational, mature, evidence-based discussion.”

Bell said these groups all raised valid issues that need to be debated by the country, adding that these would be the issues undecided voters would look towards to inform their decision – rather than more extreme views.

Green Party drug reform spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick said New Zealanders could largely see through any campaigns or marketing aimed to whip up hysteria.

“I’m really dedicated to having a rational, mature, evidence-based discussion.”

Those on both sides of the debate had to be willing to have their ideas tested in public, she said. This included politicians and special-interest groups.

While Swarbrick said Kiwis couldn’t rely on headlines as a proxy for information, there was no obligation for the Government to steer people towards fact-based, balanced sources.

This meant the public would have to take it upon themselves to fact check, or attend townhall meetings held by campaigners, to sort the evidence from misinformation.

The Electoral Commission had an obligation to educate Kiwis about the fact there was a referendum, but not the substance of the draft legislation, or the pros and cons of legalisation.

In order to make sure those with the most money didn’t have the loudest voice in the debate, McCoskrie suggested limits on campaign spending, in an attempt to level the playing field.

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