Question an important ‘bit of detail’

Legalisation of cannabis means it would become a legally sold product. Photo: Getty Images
Legalisation of cannabis means it would become a legally sold product. Photo: Getty Images
The wording of  next year’s cannabis referendum will be  crucial to its success, write  Doug Sellman  and  Joe Boden.

Just before the summer recess, the Government announced there would  be a referendum on cannabis reform to be held at the time of the 2020 general election. Exactly what the referendum wording will be is not clear.  Andrew Little said there was ‘‘a bit of detail to still work through’’. The actual wording of the referendum is crucial because there are a range of options, some of which are likely to be associated with an increase in cannabis harm and some of which may be associated with either no change or a decrease in cannabis harm.

The promise of a referendum sounds innocuous, but it may mean the ‘‘bit of detail’’ referred to will end up with generalised wording that opens the door for Big Business to develop large-scale commercialised sale of cannabis, similar to what New Zealand has  now for the sale of alcohol.

It is crucial  the referendum wording has sufficient detail in it to allow for the range of different options to the current status quo. Below is a question which contains such detail.

The range of options for the use of cannabis exist on a continuum, with maintaining prohibition of cannabis at one end and large-scale commercialisation at the other. It is at these extremes where New Zealand has been largely operating its overall drug policy to date, with large-scale commercialisation of alcohol at one extreme and all other drugs prohibited at the other. In neither case has the Government been particularly in control over the use of drugs (including alcohol). One exception  has been tobacco, which has moved in recent times from large scale commercialisation to a much more strongly regulated position closer to the centre of the continuum. This followed substantial reform of tobacco law by the Government with the passing of the Smoke-free Environments Act in 1990, resulting in major benefits to the health of New Zealanders due to less use of tobacco.In exploring options between the two ends of the continuum, it is important to differentiate between decriminalisation and legalisation, and also between the various forms of legalisation. In particular is the issue of commercialisation.

Decriminalisation of cannabis means  if a person is found in possession of cannabis they would not receive a criminal conviction for it. Instead they would preferably be invited to have an assessment and subsequently treatment if problems were found to exist. Importantly, with decriminalisation the supply and sale of cannabis would remain illegal. However, the black market in cannabis could be undermined to some extent with a decriminalisation model by people who are addicted to cannabis (the market’s favourite customers) being encouraged to receive treatment and support, rather than face punishment and damaging criminalisation. This is the Portugal decriminalisation of drugs model.Legalisation of cannabis means it  would become a legally sold product. However, there is a range of legalisation options associated with how much emphasis is placed on profit-making.

Models involving private profit are usefully termed commercialised models because the main purpose of the business activity is financial gain. Increasing commercialisation of cannabis is likely to be associated with increasing heavy use of cannabis and therefore increased harm. Eighty percent  of Big Business profit from alcohol is generated from the 20% of users who are heavy users, many of whom have a diagnosable alcohol use disorder — and the same is likely to apply to cannabis.

There are three main legalisation options: a state-owned monopoly with no private profit, strongly regulated private businesses, and weakly regulated private businesses. In all three options the Government would reap financial benefits from the sale of cannabis and thus undermine the illegal black market of cannabis. However, in the state-owned enterprise model where the seller of the cannabis is also the payer of the costs of cannabis harm, there is a built-in incentive to keep greater control of the sale of cannabis and not encourage heavy use of the drug.  This is the Scandinavian model for alcohol. An example of strong regulation of private businesses is tobacco in New Zealand. An example of weak regulation of private businesses is alcohol in New Zealand.

Here then is the question: Which of the following options best describes your favoured position regarding cannabis in New Zealand?

Maintain prohibition of cannabis.

Decriminalisation of cannabis use — health referral rather than criminal conviction on detection;  selling cannabis remains illegal (similar to drugs in Portugal).

State-owned monopoly with no private profit involved (similar to alcohol in Scandinavia).

Strongly regulated private businesses; no marketing, limited hours of purchase, R20 (similar to tobacco in New Zealand).

Weakly regulated private businesses; allowing marketing and normal hours of purchase, R18 (similar to alcohol in New Zealand).International experience with alcohol, including in New Zealand where the social cost of alcohol in a weakly regulated commercialised model is $7.8billion per year, points to potential harm if a similarly weakly regulated commercialised model for cannabis was instituted. However, a weakly regulated market is exactly what Big Business is likely to favour. There is therefore a risk in the  preparation for the cannabis referendum that Big Business influences the wording of the referendum behind the scenes in such a way as to allow enough room for a weakly regulated commercialised model to be subsequently developed.

The wording of the referendum that Big Business is  likely to push for will emphasise freedom to buy cannabis as a matter of individual choice, with no reference to the type of regulation surrounding the sale of cannabis; wording such as: Do you think it should be legal to buy cannabis in New Zealand? Yes. No. Unless the public gives a strong voice to oppose a weakly regulated cannabis model, Big Business is likely to prevail and we will end up with an American-like commercialised model for cannabis, similar to what we now  have with alcohol.

- Prof Doug Sellman is director of the University of Otago’s National Addiction Centre in  Christchurch. Joe Boden is an associate professor at the University of Otago, Christchurch.


We might expect the Capitalists to get in on the act, but then, they will have to guarantee a safe consumer product, or it's 'Court' for Big Cannabis.