Grace MacCormick reports the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill sets out a way for the Government to control and regulate cannabis in New Zealand.
The Bill’s main purpose is to reduce cannabis-related harm to individuals, families/whanau and communities.
Will it work for Kiwis?
For many voters in the upcoming referendum, the main concern is whether this proposed change will work for New Zealanders.
Countries and states around the world have tried their own approaches to reduce cannabis-related harm. These approaches range from a complete ‘war on drugs’ to full legalisation of cannabis.
Currently, Cannabis is legalised and regulated for sale in 11 US states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington), as well as Canada and Uruguay.
Overseas experi3nce can teach us a lot
Although the sample size is relatively small, we can gain important information emerging from the countries where cannabis is legal which can tell us a lot about what the legalisation of cannabis could mean for New Zealand.
First, let’s take a look at countries and states and how they have dealt with the changing medical and social environment surrounding the use of cannabis.
The South American nation of Uruguay was the first country to legalise recreational use of cannabis in 2013.
The rationale for changing the law in Uruguay was to move buyers from the black market to a legal market.
In an interview with the BBC, Esteban Riviera who owns a pharmacy in Montevideo states “We sold a lot of cannabis on the first day.”
“We sold 1, 250 packages in six hours. There was a two-block queue to get marijuana.”
Banks in Uruguay are still struggling with a fear of holding money from cannabis related accounts, as the drug largely remains illegal around the world.
Colorado and Washington were the first US States to legalise recreational cannabis. This was the beginning of a movement to legalise the drug throughout America.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of adults in Colorado who had consumed cannabis within the last month rose from 13 percent in 2013 to 17 per cent in 2017.
Medical cannabis is currently legal in differing forms in 29 US states.
Canada has allowed access to legal medical cannabis since 1999.
The current laws in place allow licensed producers to grow, manufacture and sell cannabis products for medicinal use, and individuals are also able to grow their own cannabis plants for medicinal purposes.
As of June 2019, there were over 350, 000 registered users of medical cannabis in Canada.
In 2017, The Cannabis Act was passed by the House of Commons of Canada. This law legalised recreational cannabis use nationwide in Canada.
The Cannabis Act has three public health goals: to keep cannabis away from youth, to keep the profits out of the pockets of criminals and to protect public health and safety by allowing adults access to legalised cannabis.
With the Senate passing the final version of the bill on June 19th 2018, Canada became the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to legalise recreational cannabis.
The number of people who reported using cannabis within the last three months rose from 14.9 per cent before legalisation to 16.8 per cent a year later.
Trends in Youth
So how are these examples important for us in Aotearoa?
As the Cannabis legalisation and control bill outlines, one of its main purposes is to protect the health and well-being of our young people by restricting their access to the drug.
An American study released in 2019 by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that marijuana use among children in sixth to tenth grade in Washington dropped from 2012 to 2016.
Further, the study outlined that cannabis use in Colorado and Oregon followed the same trend in young people.
The reasons cited by the CDC were the possibility of cannabis losing its novelty appeal as well as the reduction of the black-market trade.
Profit and Black Market Sales
Speaking at Massey University, Professor Beau Kilmer from the RAND Corporation Drug Policy research centre US looked at the benefits and costs of the drug.
Kilmer explains that “We’re seeing these large price declines as we’re getting rid of the risk, there are industrial growers and more competition… when you hear people talking about the amount of money the state or country will make, you have to be sceptical, because a lot of models won’t build in the price drops.”
“Illicit markets still exist in legal states. Since legalisation, at least 80% of cannabis products being purchased in Colorado are coming from legal sources. In Washington State, it’s about 50%… The illicit market is largely going to be a function of the price of the legal market and the amount of money put into enforcement. It’s going to take time.”
The impact on crime in the US states which have legalised cannabis shows a drop in low-level cannabis crimes, as they no longer exist.
However, Kilmer outlines that the “legalisation of cannabis has not eliminated racial disparities in arrests. Yes, total arrests have gone down, but we haven’t seen an elimination in racial disparities.
A new study out of Washington State showed that even though there was a total decrease in arrests, there was an increase in arrests for African Americans versus white Americans.”
While these generalisations tell us something, they do not tell us everything.
Before we all place our votes, New Zealanders need to take these international examples and the data that has come out of these countries into consideration so we can avoid their mistakes and take was has worked best for our own country.
Will cannabis legalisation be better or worse for our young people?Let’s ask them.
Whether young people will use more cannabis is a hot topic of debate surrounding the 2020 cannabis referendum.
During a debate on October 17th, Police Association President Chris Cahill said that education was the key to turning young people off cannabis.
Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said that a key part of the legislation would be the millions of dollars of funding that can be used for education and health services for our younger generations.
However, Aaron Ironside of Say Nope to Dope insisted that youth cannabis usage would rise as “it will be everywhere.”
The views of six students
Speaking with six Wellington students, it is clear that there are very mixed opinions regarding the referendum.
Michael Kerr (22) outlined that one of his main concerns was the current levels of drink driving we already have in New Zealand.
“If cannabis is legalised, drug driving will also become a bigger issue. Testing for alcohol is a lot easier than testing whether or not someone is high on cannabis.”
Olivia Stonehouse (22) also notes that cannabis is already easily available in New Zealand, “if someone wants it they can get it.”
However, for Leeroy Gonouya (22) and Jessica Hopkins (20), one their biggest concerns with the current laws is how they disproportionately affect minorities.
“The current incarceration rates, particularly for Maori and Pasifica are incredibly high. Many are serving jail time for minor cannabis related crimes which would change with a new legislation in place.”
They also believed that by making recreational cannabis legal, “it could bring education into schools ensuring young people learn about the effects of the drug.”
Benjamin Kalin (22) also addressed the issue of mental health in New Zealand.
“New Zealand’s current situation with mental health is already really shocking. Legalising recreational cannabis is only going to add to issues like this.”
So, when one looks at what could happen, it is important to realise that 500, 000 New Zealanders currently not enrolled to vote and 329, 000 of them are between the ages of 18-34.
It is crucial, now more than ever, that young voters make sure they do their own research and vote to ensure their opinions are heard.
Cannabis Referendum: The effects of Cannabis on Mental Health
Those who oppose the cannabis legalisation often cite the effects of cannabis on mental health as one of the main reasons why the drug should not be legalised.
According to Te Mana Ora, one in six New Zealand adults had been diagnosed with a common mental disorder at some time in their lives. This includes depression, bipolar disorders and anxiety disorders.
Around 650, 000 adult New Zealanders (which is 16.6 per cent) have been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives.
Considering the huge number of suicides in New Zealand each year, how much evidence is there to link cannabis use with some of those deaths?
Dr. Peter Gates released a report for the National Drug & Alcohol Research Center (Australia) which looks at the effects of cannabis on mental illness.
He states that a 2014 review of available research concluded that “using cannabis placed an individual at a small risk of developing anxiety.” However, “there was relatively little evidence to suggest that cannabis caused anxiety.”
Looking further at the 2014 review, Gates noted that “cannabis use is associated with other factors that increase risk of depression such as school dropout and unemployment.”
The effects on health
In 2009, Professors Wayne Hall and Louise Degenhardt wrote a review; ‘Adverse health effects of non-medical cannabis use.’
One of the key findings in this review was regular cannabis use in adolescence might adversely affect mental health in young adults, with the strongest evidence for an increased risk of psychotic symptoms and disorders.
In 2019, the number of suicides in New Zealand reached its highest-ever total, with 6855 people dying in the year to June 30th, according to Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall’s annual provisional suicide statistics.
Additionally, there was an increase in the numbers of young people committing suicide, especially those within the 15 to 19-year age group, which rose from 53 to 73 over the same period.
In an interview with Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick on ‘The Project,’ she addressed the issue of the relationship between mental health and cannabis usage.
“If we want to actually deal with the mental health implications of particularly cannabis usage, of particularly youth usage, then we need to take it into the light and out of the shadows, where we have an opportunity to intervene on problematic usage and a duty of care on the suppliers. Right now, none of that exists – drug dealers, for example, do not check ID.”
The relationship between cannabis use and mental health needs to be looked at further with more data from New Zealand in order to decide what will be the best stance for our country.
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