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Something is missing in the lead-up to New Zealand’s cannabis referendum.
As an ethicist, I feel strongly that our current prohibition regime is an unjustified infringement of the liberty of individual New Zealanders. But it might be a while since you read that in serious debate on this topic. That’s because the terms of the debate have been seized by talking points around how the proposed policy will play out.
Here’s a few examples: how much tax can we raise from cannabis? Is it better to tackle addiction like a health issue or a criminal issue? Will legalisation free up police resources to address ‘real’ crime? Will legalisation curtail gang profits and power?
These questions are important, but they can also make us distracted by details of the proposed law (notice how suddenly everyone has a view on how many grams a person should be allowed to buy per day?). And we end up in unjustified conjectures on twisty empirical questions (for example, how much will consumption increase after legalisation?).
The people behind the ‘yes’ campaign have done a great job of pushing back on misinformation around these policy issues, but liberty is hardly mentioned. So, it can be dissonant and disappointing to hear so much of this debate framed the way it is.
New Zealanders have the right to make their own decisions about their lives, and we need a very good reason before we use the force of the law to restrict that freedom. More than 150 years ago, philosopher John Stuart Mill told us what that good reason is. Mill’s ‘harm principle’ claims that the state should only interfere with the autonomy of an individual where doing so is necessary to prevent harm to others.
When I explain the harm principle in university lectures, I see students nodding their heads; there is broad acceptance. Yet for some reason it is unfashionable to point out what follows from this principle: since smoking cannabis is an individual choice that harms no-one but the user, the law should mind its own business.
It is true that smoking cannabis carries risk, but so do many perfectly legal bad habits. The most hackneyed comparison is with alcohol, but lots of other bad habits spring to mind: smoking cigarettes, promiscuous unprotected sex, failing to exercise.
Severe obesity, for example, may reduce your life expectancy by a decade or more. I hope even the most committed prohibitionists will not claim that cannabis is as risky as that. When the Rector of King’s High School suggests that young people’s lives are not improved by smoking cannabis, he may be right. But if he wants to be sanctimonious about something, he should tell his students to avoid obesity — it’ll do them more good than avoiding cannabis.
The reason we don’t legally prohibit these sorts of bad habits is because we recognise that people are free to make poor choices. When we see someone whose physique speaks against the act of cramming a cream doughnut down their gullet, we might not approve, but we stop short of sending the police round to kick down their door.
We need to apply the same kind of reasoning when we make our decisions with this referendum. I don’t smoke cannabis, and I see it as a bad habit. If you’re like me in those respects, then you might find it hard to get excited about removing the legal sanctions on potheads. But you probably have bad habits that others disapprove of, and you wouldn’t much like it if we passed laws to force you to improve yourself under pain of imprisonment.
The consequences of this law matter, but we should also remember the nub of the issue: we are simply not justified in using the law to stop New Zealanders from choosing to put cannabis in their bodies. Please don’t let the wrangling over policy details distract you from that fact. In October we can choose to give the potheads the same freedom we enjoy for our own bad habits. Rather than scrutinising and policing each other’s private behaviour, let’s vote yes and get back to minding our own business.
- Dr Tosh Stewart is a contract lecturer in philosophy at the University of Otago.