Should New Zealand legalise cannabis?

New Zealand could generate $5 billion annually if recreational cannabis is legalised, according to a member of the Opportunities Party. But a senior lecturer says the health impact of legalisation is more important to consider. 

Cannabis, or marijuana, is one of the most widely available illicit drugs in New Zealand, according to the police. It comes from a plant that contains the active ingredient THC. The more THC in a cannabis plant, the stronger its effects when used as a drug. 

New Zealanders could be voting in a bumper referendum on cannabis by the end of next year, alongside a vote on euthanasia. The Green Party was promised a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at or by the 2020 election as part of their coalition agreement with Labour. 

Cannabis has already been legalised in Uruguay alongside nine US states, and Canada has taken a key step towards legalisation after senators voted in favour of new legislation allowing nationwide use. 

"Canada will have a strongly regulated market, and like all states or countries that are looking into legalising cannabis, they look at this to be a big boom for tax revenue," CBS News correspondent Sandra Hughes told The AM Show on Wednesday. 

Canada would be the first G7 country to legalise the drug. 

New Zealand has an opportunity to learn from these examples and build an understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of legalising cannabis. 

But Kiwis appear torn on the issue, with some hailing cannabis as a miracle drug that can reduce stress and cure seizures, while others have warned of its addictiveness and links to depression and suicidal thoughts. 

Abe Gray, curator of Whakamana Cannabis Museum in Dunedin and member of the Opportunities Party, says New Zealand risks being "completely left behind".
Abe Gray, curator of Whakamana Cannabis Museum in Dunedin and member of the Opportunities Party, says New Zealand risks being "completely left behind". Photo credit: The Opportunities Party

What could legalisation do for New Zealand?

Abe Gray, curator of Whakamana Cannabis Museum in Dunedin and member of the Opportunities Party, says New Zealand risks being "completely left behind" if it continues to "drag its heels" regarding ending prohibition of cannabis. 

He says New Zealand could benefit from an annual $1 billion medicinal cannabis market and an annual $5 billion recreational market if cannabis is legalised. New Zealand is "already missing the boat on getting involved at the ground level with this globally important agricultural commodity".

The University of Otago's Dr Joseph Boden agrees. He told Newhsub the data coming out of the American states where cannabis has been legalised has shown that there's a "huge tax take". 

"I think this should definitely be aimed at illuminating problems in places where there have been a lot of issues around drug addiction and things like that. I think that money should be taken and turned around into improving treatments."

The University of Otago's Dr Joseph Boden says the legal age for cannabis in New Zealand (if it's legalised)  has "at least got to be 21".
The University of Otago's Dr Joseph Boden says the legal age for cannabis in New Zealand (if it's legalised) has "at least got to be 21". Photo credit: University of Otago

Since legalising cannabis in 2014, Washington State has raked in $1 billion in tax revenues, almost 80 percent of which has been directed towards health and judicial systems, the Guardian reports. But Ms Hughes says California's expectations around tax intake from legalisation haven't been met. 

"Here in California, where we expected big tax revenue increase, it hasn't happened. We don't know why - perhaps people are still buying it illegally off the streets because maybe it's cheaper. But it hasn't really been the huge money-maker they thought it was going to be."

Nevertheless, Mr Gray says the benefits for the environment and economy would be "immeasurable" if New Zealand legalised pot, highlighting government savings from not having to fund prohibition, revenue from sales, and an eco-friendly agricultural industry to balance out New Zealand's reliance on dairy. 

Health concerns around cannabis

Not everyone's convinced legalising cannabis is in the best interest of New Zealanders. 

Professor Boden warns that addiction is an issue to consider if New Zealand moves to legalise the drug. He says research that's come out of New Zealand from both the Christchurch Health & Development Study and the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Study suggest issues around mental health. 

Cannabis dependence "is not really well recognised", Professor Boden told Newshub. 

"It's a defined disorder but it's not well recognised because a lot of people wouldn't report it. Cannabis withdrawal is an under-recognised factor as well," he said. 

However, he admits cannabis is more natural and safer than synthetic cannabis products. He said synthetic cannabis is a "totally different set of compounds that's meant to try to activate the same receptors in the brain as cannabis."

"I would say it's a lot less safe than actual cannabis which in fact isn't really a toxic drug," he said. 

But as far as cannabis addiction is concerned, Mr Gray says it "isn't really a thing in the same way as alcohol and tobacco, but responsible regulation might include provisions for the first $50 million in tax to go to mental health and addiction services similar to how they use legalisation to fund health in Colorado".

Regulating cannabis in New Zealand

Mr Gray says the New Zealand Government has considered legalising cannabis "multiple times over the past two decades and every time the advice on the basis of all the evidence was to proceed with reform".

He believes that cannabis legalisation has been held back by a "tsunami of negative propaganda against cannabis continuing to brainwash people every day".

But Professor Boden says the Government should be cautious about legalising cannabis and regulate it responsibly. Asked whether he thinks the Government should legalise the drug, he said it "depends how we do it".

"We would not want the legal age to be 18. I think it's at least got to be 21." 

He said if you use cannabis quite a lot before the age of 21, your chances of being on the benefit or being undemplpoyed for at least three months consecutively is much greater compared with people who haven't used cannabis prior to that age. 

"I think the state has to control the supply of it, so in other words, no marketing or advertising, because if private industry gets involved in it then we're going to have a market just like alcohol and have the same harms caused by alcohol."

Ms Hughes says experts have warned that regulated cannabis today is a lot stronger than that which was available 20 to 30 years ago. 


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