Family First warns against cannabis reform after damning Colorado report

Cannabis-related traffic deaths have increased since legalisation in Colorado, a new report claims - but an advocate for medical cannabis in New Zealand says alcohol is far worse. 

The report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area found that cannabis-related fatalities, hospitalisations, use, and illegal market activity have increased in the US state since the drug was legalised in 2014. 

Since recreational cannabis was legalised in Colorado, cannabis-related deaths have increased 151 percent, the report claims, while cannabis-related traffic deaths involving drivers who tested positive more than doubled from 55 in 2013 to 138 in 2017. 

Family First New Zealand says the information should send a "clear warning to New Zealand to resist any weakening of drug laws," adding that "liberalising" cannabis laws and "empowering" it is the "wrong path if we care about public health, public safety, and about our young people".

But Medical Cannabis Awareness New Zealand (MCANZ) author Shane Le Brun says the report has left out crucial information about alcohol consumption in Colorado since cannabis was legalised, telling Newshub cannabis is a much safer substance. 

"They're talking about all these things being on the increase, but at the same time, knowing that alcohol is far more harmful than cannabis, they have ignored this," he said. 

"The big problem with cannabis is that it swims around in your blood for weeks," he said. "Even when you're not impaired, you can still test positive for it long after you've used it, and that's why the amount of drivers who test positive show up higher."

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. 

With the new information from Colorado, Family First New Zealand National Director Bob McCoskrie says it would be a bad idea for New Zealand to legalise cannabis, saying a "new industry of lobbyists and special interests will put profits over evidence-based policy protecting public health and safety."

He said regulation is failing in the nine US states that have legalised cannabis, and use among young people is increasing, alongside an increase in the number of car crashes involving cannabis. 

"New Zealanders only need to look to Colorado as good evidence for saying no to any referendum which attempts to legalise weed," he said. 

But Mr Le Brun said impairments and testing positive "are two very different things", adding: "You have to remember, when you look at the overall harms of drugs, cannabis is safer than alcohol. If you took every 12-year-old using alcohol, they'd be better off using cannabis."

He also pointed to America's opioid epidemic, and how opioid-related deaths have decreased by about 25 percent in areas where cannabis dispensaries are available. 

This is because the part of the brain that controls your breathing doesn't have cannabis receptors in it, but it does have opioid receptors: "When you overdose on heroin, what actually kills you is you stop breathing, whereas cannabis can't do that." 

Mr Le Brun said people who have legitimate pain and have been turned away from doctors often turn to the black market and get hooked on opioids such as heroin. But if legal cannabis is available, he says it's a much safer option. 

Colorado's model is far from perfect, Mr Le Brun admits. He said if New Zealand is truly considering legalising cannabis, then the Government should look to Canada for inspiration. 

"As we grapple with the referendum in the next year or so, we should look to Canada for inspiration on how it could work in a much more responsible model," he told Newhsub. 

Canada passed legislation to legalise cannabis in June, paving the way for nationwide legalisation in October, becoming the second country to do so after Uruguay. 

But companies planning to cash in on the newly legalised product won't be able to advertise it.

Mr Le Brun says this is a sharp contrast to alcohol, which is heavily advertised around the world, particularly in New Zealand, where kids are exposed to alcohol advertising more than four times a day