NZ Election 2020: Legalising cannabis about 'getting mature' - NZ Drug Foundation

The NZ Drug Foundation says legalising cannabis is about "getting mature" and realising the proportion of Kiwis who regularly use the drug each year.

Executive director Ross Bell says prohibition of cannabis hasn't worked and it's time to take a different approach to the issue.

"Prohibition, the thing we've been trying for 50 or 60 years, is not working," he told Magic Talk's Road to the Election on Sunday.

"We have high rates of youth cannabis use, and if people are worried about those harms, those mental health harms and other risks with cannabis that are real, they have to understand that those risks are not being fixed by our current system."

Kiwis will vote whether they support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill in the upcoming election. The proposed Bill outlines how cannabis would be controlled and regulated, and also covers how people could produce, supply or consume the drug.

The NZ Drug Foundation supports and is campaigning for legalising cannabis.

Bell says the proposed restrictions - which also include a minimum purchase age of 20 - has public health and protection for young people "at its heart".

"We're convinced that those restrictions like the high purchase age, the no advertising, the potency controls, all of these things are going to give us a greater chance at reducing the harm than simply leaving cannabis in the hands of the illicit black market."

When asked if legalising cannabis normalises its use, Bell says much of the New Zealand public has already tried it, leading him to question how much more it could be normalised.

"Eighty percent of young people have tried it and half of the adult population has tried cannabis. At what point are we going to say 'well crikey' - it's quite normalised already," he says.

"The issue for me is that cannabis is here. We have almost 600,000 New Zealanders using cannabis each year. Do we want controls in place or are we happy to turn a blind eye and let the gangs control this, let the gangs sell these products to vulnerable people? No, we have to grow up and say let's try something different. "

Ross Bell.
Ross Bell. Photo credit: The AM Show

Bell says the fears some people may have - such as whether legalisation increases use - may not come true in New Zealand.

"Overseas it seems use will go up for older adults but it decreases or stays the same for younger people," he says.

"When it comes to things like drug driving, that will stay illegal, and we're giving police new tools like saliva roadside tests to be able to properly enforce that. This is about getting mature."

With the election date being pushed out a month to October 17 due to the latest COVID-19 outbreak, Bell says it gives both those who support and oppose the proposed legislation more time to make their case. However, he says an unknown factor is if voters have the headspace to contemplate the two referenda alongside the pandemic.

"I think right now a lot of us are worried about COVID-19 and what that means for jobs and all of that uncertainty," he says.

"What we've found is that the last few weeks before the recent outbreak happened, there was space for the public to start thinking about the two other issues they have to vote on and there were more media stories around cannabis. But now with this outbreak, everyone's talking about COVID.

"For me, it's mainly about [whether] we have the correct space to be able to contemplate all of these things."