The great cannabis debate: Do we legalise it or not?

The debate only seems to become more polarised as more of us stay safely cocooned inside echo chambers where our preconceptions are unchallenged. So how do we change our minds? The contributors to this Otago Daily Times column don’t know who they are arguing with - all they know is they're simply engaging with the argument, thinking about the alternative point of view and responding. We hope it is a useful exercise.

Should cannabis be legalised for people aged 20 years and over?  That is the referendum question all New Zealand voters will have a say on in September’s general election. 

If the referendum result is in favour of legalisation, those aged 20 and over will be able to purchase cannabis. Private cultivation will be regulated, there will be a ban on cannabis advertising, purchase will be through licensed retailers and consumption of cannabis will be only allowed on private properties or licensed premises. 


We need to view cannabis like other drugs and focus on harm reduction. There are safeguards built into the proposed legislation. The current legislation clearly isn’t working to deter people. Adults who choose to use cannabis currently have to purchase it illegally and don’t know anything about the quality (or safety) of the product. If there are issues and people want help, for example to overcome dependency, it is hard to access help because of the illegal status. Experts agree that criminalising cannabis users has not led to a reduction in use. Rather it has led to an increase in use, harm and the resultant social and justice issues we currently face. 



My concern is that legalisation will send the wrong message, that cannabis is harmless, which is not true. At 20 years old, young people’s brains are still developing, and legalisation will make it easier for even younger people, below the legal age, to access cannabis too. People of all ages are likely to underestimate how long they continue to be influenced by cannabis, compromising decision-making, workplace performance and safety. And those who are particularly susceptible genetically to adverse effects of cannabis on their mental health won’t know until it’s too late. 



Some of the regulatory safeguards proposed aim to address the concerns about under 20 year olds accessing cannabis; including a ban on advertising, purchase through licensed retailers only and consumption only allowed on private properties or licensed premises. Workplaces should continue to have drug tests as part of their health and safety policies. We also need to make resources available to help people who develop dependency or other health issues. Keeping cannabis illegal isn’t working and wastes police, justice and societal  resources and criminalises a significant percentage of New Zealanders. 



Being illegal currently I believe will be deterring some people from smoking cannabis, and the safeguards in the proposed legislation will not be effective; an age limit does not stop younger people from accessing alcohol and cigarettes. Regulation is not going to change the fact that there is variability in quality of a naturally grown product - unless varieties are also going to be regulated. A regulated regime would be expensive to run and result in an expensive product. There will be people who can’t or don’t want to grow their own, or can’t access or afford a licensed retailer. A regulated regime will not eliminate illegal trade.



I agree that cannabis (like all drugs) can cause harm. We need to reinforce the message that cannabis can harm. And it’s true that young people are particularly vulnerable to all drugs. Depending on which studies we choose to quote, up to 80% of New Zealanders will try cannabis by the time they are 21 (Christchurch longitudinal study). What we are doing currently is not protecting our young or vulnerable. Ideally the age for purchase should be over 25 years when brains are more fully developed. In order to educate people and reduce potential harm (particularly for teenage brains and those genetically susceptible to mental illness) we need to be able to talk about cannabis in a factual, honest way and support people to make better choices. 


I agree that some people are not deterred from smoking cannabis by the risk of prosecution, and perhaps a review of the penalties would be appropriate. I agree also we currently face social and justice issues from cannabis use, but a regulated regime would not satisfactorily address those issues - it doesn’t for alcohol. However, we should improve on the status quo by increasing focus on harm reduction. People seeking to overcome dependency should be able to access help on a confidential basis despite the illegality. The money that would be spent setting up a regulated regime would be better spent on health education and on confidential treatment options. 


‘‘The primary objective of the legislation is to reduce overall cannabis use and limit the ability of young people to access cannabis,” MP Andrew Little stated in 2019. The evidence convincingly shows people are not deterred. A Cannabis Regulatory Authority will ensure the environment is significantly safer than the status quo including setting limits on the levels of THC (the psychoactive substance). Treasury predictions show the Government could generate $240 million a year taxing cannabis rather than spending $400 million a year enforcing drug prohibition and pursuing gangs. The current law causes more harm than it prevents with prohibition disproportionately affecting males, Maori and youth. We should focus on education, harm reduction and protecting those under 25 years. 


I am afraid that the proposed regulated regime will make cannabis more expensive, will not eliminate illegal trade, and will not solve the social and justice issues we currently face. It brings with it an increased risk of harm because it condones cannabis use, will decrease workplace safety and will make access easier for young people. But that doesn’t mean we can’t improve on the status quo. We do need to reduce the harm that cannabis use causes. That means more education about how long its effects can last and what it does to the brain, and easier access to treatment options. The common goal has got to be reducing the harm that cannabis use causes.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images