Dr Fiona Hutton urges us not to turn a blind eye to the cannabis referendum, even though it may not feel significant amid Covid-19

I for one am delighted to see the Government has released the final version of the bill we will all vote on in the referendum on September 19 – and am also delighted to see its aims are clearly stated and focused on a health-based harm reduction approach to cannabis. 

That the team behind the cannabis referendum, as well as the ministers involved, have been working away at this, despite the advent of Covid-19, demonstrates the importance of this issue for New Zealand. Although we are preoccupied with the coronavirus on a number of levels, other important issues, such as this, should also be given some of our attention.  

Why, I hear you ask? Why do we need to give this our attention? In the middle of a pandemic? Well, even in the middle of a pandemic, critical issues that affect us don’t go away. 

Many of us have already been affected by the prohibition of cannabis. 

During my research, I talked to New Zealanders living with the stigma of drug-related convictions. Consider the person who said, “I was broken for quite a long time [after being convicted of cannabis possession], I was always living with that in the background.” Or the person who noted that after being convicted it was “just shame, you just carry this terrible shame”. Or the person who said of the stigma of cannabis-related convictions, “I just felt depressed and anxious and stressed out, I didn’t need that sort of negative attention.” Or another person about trying to move on after getting a cannabis conviction: “Straight away they ask you if you have a police record and it’s not hard for them to check up on you.”

These stories, shared generously with me, were often hard to hear – already vulnerable or marginalised people trying their best to deal with life, then having the added weight of a drug conviction to cope with, condemning them to a life of missed opportunities, stigma and often deepening problems. 

The stories demonstrate why we can’t turn a blind eye to or ignore the referendum, it’s too important, even in these difficult and uncertain times. We need to stop criminalising people (often some groups more than others) for cannabis (and other drug)-related offences and we need to adopt an approach that properly addresses any harms related to cannabis use. 

Thankfully, this bill proposes to do just that, to properly address the issues related to cannabis use, and puts paid to the scaremongering about cannabis shops on every street corner and cannabis gummy bears in the local diary – consumption will be restricted to private homes or specially licensed alcohol-free premises. 

It is abundantly clear the bill is designed to reduce cannabis-related harm, to raise awareness of the risks of cannabis use and to restrict cannabis availability, particularly for young people. This is evident in the details it contains such as a purchase age of 20 years, strict requirements around potency (which will be limited), packaging and labelling, including health warnings, levels of THC (stuff that gets you high) and CBD (stuff that has a calming effect). 

Products that appeal to children are not allowed, as well as no discounts, promotions, advertising or sponsorship of cannabis products. There are also all kinds of harm reduction initiatives contained in the bill such as testing products for consistency and contaminants, not allowing products that contain harmful substances like tobacco or alcohol – all really positive, aimed at reducing harms. 

It is important to note not all is rosy with the bill. For example, the penalties for selling to an underage person are still pretty extreme – up to four years in prison – and some consumers of cannabis are unhappy with potency restrictions. 

It is also important to note, though, that we can have our say on issues we might not be 100 percent comfortable with, through submitting on the bill after the referendum. The Government is taking a cautious approach with this bill and it doesn’t necessarily mean some things can’t change if both the referendum and legalisation itself are a success. 

In considering change – this won’t happen overnight and a legal cannabis market is not a magic bullet for all drug-related problems. However, the referendum is a crucial first step in addressing some of these issues, so let’s take control of our cannabis market for these ends: to reduce harm.

New Zealanders who were concerned a legal cannabis market will make cannabis more available to vulnerable groups such as young people should be heartened by the bill.

Evidence demonstrates that drug markets continue to grow, and that cannabis is widely available to all groups in society, including young people, in the current illegal market – voting ‘no’ in the referendum will not change this and will leave cannabis widely available to all with no restrictions or harm reduction measures.  

As former Prime Minster Helen Clark noted recently, “The referendum is not about whether cannabis should be available in New Zealand, it is about the terms on which cannabis should be available in New Zealand”, indicating how widely available cannabis is already. 

Voting ‘yes’ for a legal market will restrict the availability of cannabis to vulnerable groups such as young people, improve harm reduction interventions around this particular substance, stop the damaging criminalisation of young (and other) people for minor cannabis offences, and may also provide a much-needed boost to New Zealand’s economy in the wake of Covid-19. 

I want be part of a ground-breaking approach to cannabis and drug-related harms, so let’s not squander this opportunity and let it slip away.

Sadly, it’s too late for those who shared their stories with me, so let’s make sure future generations have more positive stories to tell by overhauling our drug laws and taking a harm reduction approach to cannabis.

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