Opinion as well as science informs policy advice

The Christchurch Health and Development Study found  80% of the cohort, now aged 43, had tried...
The Christchurch Health and Development Study found 80% of the cohort, now aged 43, had tried cannabis. PHOTO: REUTERS
Prof Joe Boden, of the University of Otago, provides a view from inside the expert panel on cannabis ahead of this year’s cannabis referendum.

Joe Boden. Photo: Supplied
Joe Boden. Photo: Supplied
A year ago several New Zealand academics, me included, were invited to join the expert panel on cannabis by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser, Prof Juliet Gerrard.

With the referendum on the legalisation of cannabis planned for this year, the Prime Minister had asked Prof Gerrard to assemble the panel in order to present research on cannabis, cannabis-related harm and cannabis law reform to New Zealanders in an accessible manner.

The panel, comprised of academics ranging from public health, to addiction medicine, law and economics, met for the first time in September last year, and for the last time during the Covid-19 lockdown in May (via Zoom). Our report was published online on July 7.

Serving on the panel was a fascinating learning experience.

In academia, as with many jobs, we tend to spend much of our time working in our departments and research groups, and relatively little interacting with experts in other areas.

In this case, however, we had the privilege of spending large amounts of time talking through each of our own areas of expertise, learning a great deal along the way, and working out the best way of presenting the most important information to the public. To this end we were ably assisted by the staff of the Office of the Chief Science Adviser, who made the process run almost seamlessly for us.

Given the broad scope of our brief, and the resulting report, it would be almost impossible for me to encapsulate our findings in a short article such as this.

However, the report itself has been presented in such an accessible and plain-language manner that I would be unable to improve upon it. I believe it serves as a valuable tool for the general public to understand the research on cannabis, and what is likely to happen in the case of either a Yes or No vote winning the referendum.

A key aspect of the report is that it takes a politically neutral stance, but members of the panel were not required to be politically neutral.

This has drawn some criticism, particularly from prominent ‘‘No’’ campaigners, who accused the panel of being ‘‘biased’’.

This reflects, I believe, a misunderstanding of the notion of scientific objectivity. It is true that our roles as scientists and academics require us to consider all evidence in a manner that is unbiased as possible, and we have done so as panel members in the way we normally carry out our roles.

However, many of us working in applied fields such as health are also required as part of our normal roles to form opinions regarding policy as a result of that evaluation.

As an example, as a researcher funded by the Health Research Council, I am obligated to interact with policymakers, providing recommendations about what policies should look like. This task requires that I form an opinion based on the evidence, and this is true of cannabis policy as much as any other policy.

Having said this, I do have an opinion as to what is the best policy to deal with the issue of cannabis, which I formed some time ago on the basis of my reading of the evidence. My view is that the best approach is encapsulated in the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, which will legalise and strictly regulate the already-thriving (but mostly prohibited) cannabis industry.

There are many reasons why I have formed this view, but the following are the most prominent.

First, our own research with the Christchurch Health and Development Study has shown that 80% of our cohort of now 43-year-olds have tried cannabis, suggesting that the law does not prevent use.

Second, a further study of our cohort showed that 95% of those arrested or convicted of a cannabis offence either continued to use cannabis at the same level, or increased their use, suggesting that having the force of the law applied to you is not a deterrent to cannabis use.

Third, our study also found that Maori were three times more likely to be arrested or convicted of a cannabis offence, showing that the law is being applied in a biased manner.

All three of these considerations show that the law does not work to prevent cannabis use as intended, and in fact causes more social harm than it prevents, which is why I am in favour of changing this law to a much more sensible and health-centred approach.

 - Prof Joe Boden is director of the Christchurch Health and Development Study at the department of psychological medicine, University of Otago, Christchurch.

Comments

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If dope is made legal, a positive drug test will become legally meaningless. Anyone can have drugs in their system and we won't be able to do anything about it. Plus, no test exists that is fine-tuned enough to detect when and how much dope was used.
So your doped-up brain surgeon who mucks up your surgery can just laugh and say "Oh, the positive test is registering the joints from the party I had on the weekend!"
I don't want to be operated on by a surgeon who may be high, or arrested by a high cop. I don't want doped-out kindergarten teachers caring for our preschoolers. I don't want high ambulance drivers, nurses or hospice care workers. I don't want a high electrician wiring my home. Bring in legal dope and we'll have no legal protection against any of these!
But hey - that's not important. Our safety and wellbeing doesn't matter to politicians and ivory tower academics. The Government will have its new tax revenue stream and an even more compliant and dopey population - which is what this is really all about!

Your claims are nothing more than scaremongering. Certainly workplace testing needs reviewing to an impairment-based model rather than the current system whereby a person’s cannabis use outside of the workplace determines their ‘suitability’ for a role. Depending on an individual’s use and body type, cannabis will test positive up to a month after consuming - hardly a fair indicator of suitability considering their impairment from cannabis (again, depending on the amount consumed) only lasts a couple of hours. Claiming that surgeons, teachers, electricians or any responsible adult for that matter will begin to go to work and perform their duties under the influence of cannabis is nonsense. The same can be said for the argument that drug driving will increase (again, I’m referring to cannabis). Under prohibition an effective test cannot be developed (and that surely pleases the drug testing industry). Legalising will enable these developments which will in turn enable the implementation of safety campaigns (just like anti drink driving) and enforceable drug driving laws. Cannabis is not ‘drugs,’ cannabis is cannabis.

Yes and alcohol is legal and we have drunks everywhere. What is you point?

The law does not prevent use. It successfully busts organised crime.

Preliminary studies done after legalization in 10 US States have intimated that crime rates have been going up rather dramatically in most of the states that have legalized recreational marijuana (Smart Approaches to Marijuana, 2018). In Washington State, reports suggested that the number of marijuana-related offenses such as assault, theft, harassment, and vehicular offenses continue to increase since legalization (Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area [NHIDTA], 2016). That said “violent crime is down since Washington legalized marijuana” (Santos, 2017). A separate study by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, claims (based on a book by Berenson, [2019]) that violent crime had increased in Washington state post-legalization. You have no idea what you're talking about. There is no reputable study showing that legalization "busts" organized crime. In fact, most organizaed crime shifts assets to moving and selling other drugs.

You misunderstand. I'm referring to current practice. Usage is not the priority. Criminal operations of the Supply Industry are. Read the news and realise these 'gangs' are often well heeled and connected. Keep up with NZ conditions, rather than overseas.

Your absolutely correct there Rabbi! Awesome assessment! Wish everybody was as well focused! Organized crime will focus efforts on other other drugs.

Canada legalized marijuana and has had nothing but problems with organized crime. Like Canada’s cigarette industry, there is a contraband market run by organized crime that sells tax free marijuana. The Canadian government looses roughly 3 billion dollars in tax revenues that go to the pockets of organized crime. Legal marijuana is typically 50% more expensive than the illegal marijuana sold by organized crime. Organized crime still controls roughly 30% of the marijuana market across Canada. The legalization of marijuana in Canada has pulled legal marijuana from Canda where it is illegally sold in the US at a considerable profit. Along the transborder route to the South, Mexican organized crime has reacted with import substitution: while the amount of marijuana seized at the border is down, seizures of other drugs—methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin—are up. Despite greater U.S. resources allocated to prevent illegal entry into the United States, organized crime has proven resilient. The professionalization of smuggling along the U.S.-Mexico border has emerged as a major enforcement challenge for American border officials. Not a very cognitive response! Very foolish and naive!

I am not talking of America, or Canada, but of Central and of Northern scenes.

Applied cognition suggests you have no relevant stats of local conditions.

Aaah, no; wrong on both counts. Firstly, The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, Section 7, paragraph 1, section (a) states: “no person shall
procure or have in his possession, or consume, smoke, or otherwise use, any controlled drug”. The penalty is delineated in Section 7, paragraph 2, section (a): “violators are liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or to a fine not exceeding $1,000 or to both where a Class A controlled drug was the controlled drug or one of the controlled drugs in relation to which the offense was committed”. So the law does prevent use. Secondly, there are numerous studies showing the legalization of Marijuana actually increases the power and breadth of organized crime. Please refrain from publishing these dim-witted opinions that are not based upon any facts. If you want to vote on legalizing marijuana great, go ahead. Everything else you published is flat out wrong!

There is a difference between 1975 law and police practice. It is common knowledge that proactive policing of users was relegated to the back burner, unless the user is a dealer.. A fine one to talk of dimwittedness, and instruct the ODT.

Too funny...hill 0; Wanda 1! No surprise there.

The Government tried to decriminalise the use of all drugs last year but this was watered down by NZ First so that the police will only prosecute if in the public interest. The proposed new law will introduce commercial premises, grow your own and there will still be a black market. Commercial entities will be trying to grow the user base and there will be a big normalisation of drug culture. With the three strands of commercial, grow your own and black market it will become impossible to enforce where the drugs have come from. In a country which already has problems with drug related mental health and suicide, greatly expanding supply mechanisms is not going to end well.

There’s no evidence to suggest that any of that is going to happen.

Actually, all the evidence says it will. It's futile to argue our positions because I can point to a number of studies proving my position as you can for yours. The election will be decided in a couple of months and there isn't too much either of us is going to say that's going to sway opinions.

I get the impression Boden is in denial regarding the conflict between his bias and his professional standing.
"First, our own research with the Christchurch Health and Development Study has shown that 80% of our cohort of now 43-year-olds have tried cannabis, suggesting that the law does not prevent use."
NORML quote "52% of New Zealanders aged 15 – 45 admit to having used cannabis at some time, and 16% describe themselves as current users." so either usage is declining, else NORML or Boden's cohort is not representative of NZ.
"95% of those arrested or convicted of a cannabis offence either continued to use", reflects more on how they reacted to the law than anything else.
"Maori were three times more likely to be arrested or convicted of a cannabis offence, showing that the law is being applied in a biased manner." or maybe Boden's cohort believed they had more to lose if caught so acted in a more discrete manner instead of being blatantly defiant of authority and carrying a conviction as street cred.
His finale point suggests a bias towards Critical Race Theory and it's demeaning attitude towards those that struggle to flourish in our society, over psychological medicine.

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