Move past the moralistic undertones, ignore the opposition messaging emanating from the US, and be sensible about cannabis, writes Dr Fiona Hutton

The debate about the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill is in full flow ahead of referendum day on Saturday.

As a supporter of a public health approach to cannabis (and other drugs), I am a fan of this legislation, which is based in harm reduction principles and aims to protect young people, reduce cannabis use in the long term and take a sensible approach to a drug easily available, including to young teenagers, in New Zealand. 

What I am less a fan of are some of the campaigns using sensationalist fearmongering based in centuries-old ‘reefer madness’-type language and images of those who use cannabis. This deeply saddens me, as I had hoped, perhaps naively, our debates on such an important topic would be evidence based.

It also angers me these campaigns are influenced by US organisations that adhere to unrealistic and dubious morally based arguments about drug use. It is understandable perhaps that at the height of COVID-19 the concern of ministers at such interference went unheeded. Sadly, the very thing they were concerned about has come to pass. The stigma, stereotypes and discrimination we see in these campaigns are key barriers to sensible health-based approaches. Let’s not base our drug policy on this kind of platform.

For some, to move beyond these stereotypes is a big ask but that is what I am urging. Stay away from the myths and get informed before you vote (see the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor website, for example).

Think for a moment about the sometimes heated debates about drug-impaired driving, the limit of 14g on the purchase of cannabis and the way cannabis users are referred to as ‘addicts’ – we seem to believe they are crazed, dangerous criminals who, given half a chance, will consume as much cannabis as they can and wreak havoc. 

We can’t seem to accept the more boring reality that the majority (just like the majority of alcohol users) are ordinary people perfectly capable of sensibly managing their use. Most, like the rest of us, value their communities and families and won’t be getting behind the wheel of a car or going to work impaired – just like the majority of New Zealanders who don’t drink and drive or turn up to work drunk. Similarly, the majority won’t be buying and consuming 14g of cannabis every day – just like those of us who buy a 12-pack of beer or a couple of bottles of wine at the supermarket and consume them over a fortnight.

We need to move past these images, laden with moralistic undertones, and think carefully about how we want to approach substances like cannabis in our society.

Cannabis is already widely used and normalised in New Zealand, so how do we want to deal with any harms related to it in our communities?

Do we want to carry on with a system that is not working, that has not stopped the use or availability of cannabis (or any other drugs), but that causes a large amount of harm through criminalising vulnerable groups?

Or do we want to take a fresh, uniquely New Zealand approach based on public health principles, harm reduction and equity?

I am voting yes for a number of reasons.

For those who have no voice and have been criminalised and marginalised by our current drug laws. To stop the unequal criminalisation of Māori in the criminal justice system for minor drugs offences. And because the evidence from overseas reassures me young people’s cannabis use does not increase under legalisation and that legalisation doesn’t precipitate any meaningful increases in drug-impaired driving.

I am voting yes because cannabis use is not related to mental health concerns for the majority of users and only a small proportion of cannabis users suffer mental health harms due to a range of specific factors (which the proposed bill seeks to address).

I am voting yes because reforming our drug laws will provide a better way to help people who experience harms from their cannabis use. I am voting yes for my children, newly moving into their teenage years, so they don’t suffer the pains of criminalisation for possessing or using a drug they are highly likely at least to be offered in the next few years.

I am voting yes for harm reduction, for an approach that properly and effectively addresses the issues related to the use of cannabis. Most of all, though, I am voting yes because, after more than 20 years of working, teaching and researching in the drugs field, that is what the evidence tells me is the right thing to do.

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