While Māori and Pākehā use cannabis at the same rate, Māori are four times more likely to do time in prison. This alone justifies a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum, writes Shane Te Pou 

COMMENT: Helen Clark has left nothing on the paddock when it comes to cannabis law reform. Just as the momentum for change seemed to be petering out earlier in the year, Clark’s measured but determined advocacy on behalf of the ‘Yes’ campaign has given her side more than a fighting chance. But it may take another Prime Minister – the current one – to get legalisation over the line.

I respect Jacinda Ardern’s reluctance to weigh into the issue to date. Given the state of her inbox at present, it was smart political management to avoid becoming entangled in a controversial reform that has no bearing on her day-to-day functions as Prime Minister. And, given her singular stature in our current politics, if Ardern had expressed a view, she would quickly become the default spokeswoman for her chosen side, diverting her from more critical and immediate governing challenges.

But the time is soon coming for Ardern to show her hand. In saying this, I admit to being a little presumptuous. But everything I know about the Prime Minister and her approach to policy leads me to believe she is far more likely to support than oppose the referendum. Her saying so, and laying out the reasons why, could be decisive.

Polls suggest the referendum outcome is touch and go, but I fear that undecided voters will default to a ‘no’ vote. If we didn’t always know it, we surely do these days: fear sells better than facts.

I encounter so many voters who are tentatively inclined to a ‘yes’ vote but remain susceptible to negative messages about the possible impacts of reform. If these doubts linger through to Election Day, many such voters will ultimately decide for the status quo. If that happens, it could be decades before we have a chance to tackle the issue again. By that time, New Zealand will have been left behind as the rest of the developed world continues its march to widespread legalisation.

These voters are not oblivious to the harms brought about by maintaining our current regime. They know that people, including younger people, who want weed, can get it anywhere on the black market. They understand this brings otherwise law-abiding people into contact with gangs and dealers. Many even get that the legacy of drug laws is the disproportionate incarceration of the poor and the brown. They know things aren’t good, but they are nervous about whether the slightly counterintuitive arguments for liberalisation will make things any better.

Nobody is better placed than Ardern to assuage these concerns – not even close. Her credibility as an advocate of science and evidence-based policy will never be higher than it is today.

For people worried about the effect of legalisation on cannabis use among young people, it might help if they knew of evidence that no such spike has occurred in places like Canada and California. If they’re concerned about weed as a “gateway” to more serious drugs, there’s ample research that doesn’t support this; in fact, it could have the opposite effect given the reduced exposure to the black market.

But, whenever I discuss the issue with someone teetering on the fence, here’s the argument that hits home hardest: even though research shows that Māori and Pākehā use cannabis at the same rate, Māori are four times more likely to do time in prison. In practical terms, cannabis laws barely apply to white middle-class users, but, for young Māori in particular, they function as a brutally efficient gateway to prison and a pipeline for gangs. If you ask me, if reform shuts this down, that alone justifies a ‘yes’ vote.

I don’t smoke weed. I prefer booze. But, when I think about my whānau and community, both substances are readily available, but alcohol is indisputably the more harmful in terms of family violence, crime, car accidents, negative physical and mental health effects, diabetes, obesity, abuse and addiction. I defy anyone to argue otherwise.

If it were legalised, the cannabis industry could employ about 5000 people and earn the Government $1.1 billion in taxes each year, according to economists at BERL. That’s double what Labour’s recently-announced tax hike on incomes over $180,000 will generate. As we ready ourselves to face up to a world after Covid, this strikes me as an economic opportunity we would be unwise to miss.

If Ardern indeed supports legalisation, her intervention at this juncture could make the difference. If the price of her understandable reticence is that the referendum falls at the last hurdle, my estimation will be that it was too high.

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