Exacerbate or minimise harm? Chlöe Swarbrick on cannabis referendum

With a recreational cannabis vote set for 2020, Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick wants to help the nation understand why it's the right move. 

As spokesperson for Drug Law Reform, Ms Swarbrick has campaigned hard for drug law changes. And her efforts have come to fruition after the Government announced on Tuesday that a binding referendum on recreational cannabis will go ahead in 2020. 

"What we have to realise is that our legislative and regulatory response to problems can either exacerbate or minimise harm," Ms Swarbrick told RadioLIVE on Wednesday. She said evidence suggests the current legislative response of criminalising cannabis users isn't working. 

"We have to bring the problem out of the shadows and into the light."

Ms Swarbrick wants to see cannabis regulated in New Zealand to bring it out of the control of gangs. She pointed to the Ministry of Health survey for 2012-2013 which showed that 400,000 New Zealanders are consuming cannabis on an annual basis. 

Thirty-four percent of cannabis users reported using cannabis at least weekly, the report found. Māori adults and adults living in the most deprived areas were also found to be the most common users. 

"There is no quality control of this stuff - people are not consuming with any guidelines or education. Drug dealers also aren't checking IDs. If somebody in this country wants to get access to it there is literally no stopping them," said Ms Swarbrick. 

"We also have the situation whereby because it is so accessible in this country, it's helping to finance criminal underground activity and is held by the gangs."

The Green MP wants the cannabis vote to have absolute clarity for the general public "about what they are actually voting for so we don't have a Brexit-type situation". 

That way, she said, "you can remove all the moral panic and what-ifs from the debate, and there would be clarity and hopefully maturity and respectability in the public debate."

With similar regulation to alcohol, Ms Swarbrick says people will be safer because there is currently no way to stop suppliers from contaminating illegal cannabis with dangerous chemicals or enhancements. 

"I absolutely do not come from the stance that cannabis is harmless. I have seen first-hand the harm that cannabis can cause," she said. 

"But if we want to understand how it works and collect that data and focus - like we did on tobacco, on taxing, regulating and driving down consumption through education campaigns and cessation campaigns - then we have to do similar things."

The Green Party was promised a referendum on legalising recreational cannabis at or by the 2020 election as part of their coalition agreement with Labour.

The vote, taking place during the 2020 elections, has been called a "distraction" by the National Party. Leader Simon Bridges said Labour is trying to "distract from the core issues of a general election, such as who is best to govern".

Mr Bridges has said he's worried that legalising cannabis could normalise the substance. He said he's "seen the debilitation in communities around New Zealand", adding he worries about the mental health implications.

Last week Ms Swarbrick spoke to The Project after the Government passed a medicinal cannabis bill which promises a regulated market as well as a legal defence for users who are close to death.  

She said, "No one is saying that drugs come with no harm. That's grotesquely untrue and hugely irresponsible. Drugs do come with harm, but what we have to recognise is that our systemic responses can either reduce or increase that harm."

The Government has also moved to ease up on people caught with personal possession of illegal drugs, and will allocate $16.6 million to boost community addiction treatment services - basically trading jail time for treatment. 

People caught possessing and using drugs will face lighter charges under the Government's proposal. On the flip side, synthetics will now be classified as class A, giving the police more power to crack down on drug makers and dealers.