Considering the impact of the Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill

On Election Day, 17 October 2020, Aotearoa/New Zealand will elect new political leaders for our country.  New Zealanders will also be asked to vote on whether recreational use of cannabis should become legal and the End of Life Choice Act 2019.

The proposed Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill sets out a way for the Government to control and regulate cannabis. This regulatory model covers how people can produce, supply, or consume cannabis.  The Bill’s main purpose is to reduce cannabis-related harm to individuals, families/whānau and communities.

Most New Zealanders try cannabis at some point and 15% of adults reported using cannabis at least once in the past year (2018/19 Office of The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor). • Young people are the biggest users with 29% reporting past-year use (ages 15-24, 2018/19). 

Our current law prohibits the use of cannabis except in certain situations such as medical use for selected conditions. The threat of arrest or conviction is intended to put people off using cannabis, therefore avoiding any associated social or health problems. But cannabis being illegal isn’t stopping people using it and, as a result, society experiences substantial social and health harms related to cannabis.

An alternative approach being implemented in some jurisdictions is to legalise the production, supply and use of cannabis. In theory, this approach has the potential to undercut the illegal market for cannabis, help reduce cannabis-related harm through regulated product safety, better facilitate intervention and treatment services, and separate access to cannabis from the illegal market for more harmful drugs.

Discriminatory policing and justice outcomes result from the uneven application of cannabis laws, especially for young Pacific and Maori.  Māori are three times more likely to be arrested and convicted of a cannabis-related crime than non-Māori. Māori are almost twice as likely as non-Māori to go to court over a first offence and nearly seven times more likely to be charged.  Legalising cannabis could have important positive implications for social equity outcomes, particularly for Pacific and Māori young people.

The Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor has produced a comprehensive report on the implications for Aotearoa/New Zealand from the referendum.  This is summarised below.

A yes vote could lead to ‘normalisation’ of cannabis use, which may lead to increased use. • Overseas experience shows mixed evidence for use among youth and preliminary evidence of increasing cannabis use among older age groups and university students, following legalisation.

Legalising cannabis could weaken illegal markets, reduce criminal convictions and alleviate wider social harms, felt most strongly in marginalised communities such as Pacific and Maori New Zealanders.  Depending on how the regulations are applied, poor outcomes may emerge if cannabis production, supply and use remains illegal. 

A vote for keeping cannabis illegal means the production and supply of cannabis is embedded in deprived communities and is likely to continue to give rise to and boost organised and opportunistic crime, compromise social wellbeing and safety, especially in vulnerable populations, and cause disproportionate and intergenerational social harms. People who are convicted for cannabis use continue to be socially stigmatised. The lifelong impacts make it difficult to get jobs, find housing, travel and be approved for loans.

Voting to make cannabis production, supply and use legal reduces some but not all risks for cannabis-related health harms. These are most often experienced by frequent and/or high-potency product users, people who start using cannabis young, and those who have a pre-existing or family history of mental health conditions or substance use disorders.

Legalising cannabis laws will be more consistent with the legal provisions for alcohol and tobacco but will have stricter regulations. • Regulatory approach for cannabis will be more consistent with personal freedom to choose to use cannabis.  If the vote is against legalising cannabis, laws remain generally inconsistent with those for alcohol and tobacco. 

The Pasifika Medical Association (PMA) is the largest NGO representing the majority of Pacific health professionals in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the Pacific region.  PMA does not have a position on the proposed Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill.  However, PMA encourages Pacific people to vote and consider the advantages and disadvantages of legalising the recreational use of cannabis.  It is an important addition to the legislative frameworks that exist in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

#pmafamily

Date: Saturday 03 October 2020