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New Zealanders heading to polling stations in September will also be asked to vote on whether they want cannabis legalised. Daisy Hudson takes a look at the vote, which could have a major impact on our society.
Dope. Weed. Marijuana. Cannabis. Mary Jane. Pot. Ganja.
Outlawed in New Zealand since 1927, cannabis could this year be legalised for recreational use if the majority of Kiwis tick "yes" in the September referendum.
Despite nearly 100 years of prohibition, cannabis was not significantly policed until the 1960s.
The Misuse of Drugs Act came into effect in 1975, introducing the classifying system that gave cannabis its class C grading.
After years of debate, it took a confidence and supply agreement between the Labour Party and the Greens signed after the 2017 election to formally put the issue to a public vote.
The referendum will be non-binding, meaning even if the majority of people approve it, it will not automatically become law and will still need to go through Parliament.
There is a fair amount riding on the outcome.
While police resources appear to have been channelled into cracking down on more harmful drugs such as methamphetamine in recent years, people continue to be prosecuted for growing, possessing or selling cannabis.
The maximum penalty for possession or use is three months’ jail and/or a fine of up to $500.
There are major ramifications for the health system, which shoulders the burden of treatment costs.
And if the majority of people vote against legalisation, it’s hard to see another government expending political capital to raise the issue again anytime soon.
FOR those thinking it is still a niche issue, think again.
For a long time, New Zealand had one of the highest rates of cannabis use per capita in the developed world.
The internationally renowned Dunedin Study found about 80% of New Zealanders born in the 1970s reported using cannabis at least once.
University of Otago assistant research fellow Geoff Noller points out that, given the majority of New Zealanders continued to try cannabis at least once in their lifetime, criminalisation had clearly failed to curb usage.
"If we’ve got such a high rate of use, and we’ve got this law that’s been there the whole time, it’s pretty easy to see that doesn’t work."
Legal cannabis use took a big step forward when medicinal cannabis became legal in April this year.
It’s impossible to ignore the impact campaigner Helen Kelly had on that move before her death from lung cancer in 2016.
Medicinal cannabis companies were champing at the bit to start production, including several in Queenstown and Central Otago.
As many countries and states around the world have found, legalising medicinal cannabis has paved the way for recreational use to be considered.
The New Zealand Medical Association, which represents doctors from a range of specialties, came out against legalisation last year.
At the time, chairwoman Kate Baddock said that in addition to physical harm, cannabis created social and psychological harm.
"What we would like to see is the Government undertaking targeted initiatives to reduce the social inequalities that increase the risk of harm from drug use and meaningful investment into education and treatment programmes."
It also wanted a public education campaign to demonstrate that "soft", or recreational drugs, could have serious and harmful effects.
Opponents have described the proposed legal cannabis industry as the new "Big Tobacco".
Smart Approaches To Marijuana NZ argues drug use is both a criminal and a health issue.
"A smart arrest policy can both provide a societal stamp of disapproval and provide an opportunity to intervene and stop the progression of use," it said.
THE Dunedin Study found the majority of people who used cannabis did so with little or no harm.
When study participants were in their 20s, when use was highest, the level of problematic usage resulting in cannabis dependence diagnosis was about 4%-10%.
But it did find the chances of experiencing psychotic symptoms and/or psychotic disorders were elevated, especially if use began during adolescence and continued into adulthood.
For example, in the Dunedin Study the risk of having a psychotic disorder by age 26 among early onset cannabis users roughly doubled compared with non-users.
Cannabis use could also impact brain function, it found.
The largest loss of eight IQ points was found among study members who began using cannabis during adolescence and who continued using cannabis up to the age of 38.
Based on the findings, researchers recommended that prevention and policy-making should concentrate on delaying the onset of cannabis use until adulthood, and that education programmes should be used to target adolescents with messages about how cannabis could affect their brain development.
That is indeed a key component of the Bill that would go before Parliament should the referendum pass.
If you’re under 20, you would not be able to enter, or work at, somewhere cannabis was sold or consumed.
What’s clear in the cannabis debate is that the issue is polarising, and the referendum result could be extremely close.
A UMR poll commissioned by the Helen Clark Foundation and released in early July found 48% of New Zealanders would support the proposed Bill, and 43% were opposed.
Whichever way it falls, Kiwis won’t know the result until preliminary details are released on October 2.
- Do you know enough about the cannabis referendum? Have you decided which way you will be voting? We’d like to hear what you think. Email email@example.com and we will publish a selection of comments.
LEGALISATION AROUND THE WORLD
Several countries and states have relaxed their cannabis laws in recent years with varying results.
An often-cited example is Canada. It legalised recreational cannabis use in late 2018 and has a suite of regulations in place.
Like the proposed New Zealand law, it features an age restriction, although it’s 18 rather than 20.
About $186 million in revenue was collected in the first five and a-half months of legalisation in Canada.
An article in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience published in September 2019 found legalisation had increased cannabis use in only one group — men aged 45–64 years old (9%-14%).
But it also found a black market continued to thrive.
‘‘Legal sellers cannot keep up with demand, their product costs more than on the street and the range of products offered is limited.’’
Uruguay, South Africa and states in the United States have also legalised cannabis use, to varying degrees.
But the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser’s office points out most evidence is too recent to draw any conclusions from.
‘‘The limited evidence from overseas examples is mixed and constantly evolving — outcomes from early studies appear to be both positive and negative.’’