Cannabis referendum: Four experts weigh up the pros and cons of legalising marijuana

A handful of New Zealand's biggest advocates and critics of recreational marijuana have explained which way they'll be voting in this year's cannabis referendum, and why you should join them.

The referendum, which will ask Kiwis if they support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, will be held alongside the general election and euthanasia referendum on September 19.

If more than 50 percent of voters choose 'yes', a Bill will be introduced in Parliament that would set in motion a process to legalise and control cannabis in New Zealand. If not, nothing will change.

It's clear a lot of Kiwis are unsure which way they'll vote - polls in recent months have shown New Zealand's support for cannabis reform ebb and flow dramatically - so we thought we'd help you make a call.

Instead of weighing up the pros and cons ourselves, we asked four of the most passionate and educated parties on both sides of the debate to give their unfiltered pitch for why you, the undecided voter, should vote for or against cannabis reform.

Have a read of what they said below.

Voting 'yes' in the cannabis referendum

Kathy Errington - executive director of the Helen Clark Foundation, an independent public policy think-tank


Cannabis referendum: Four experts weigh up the pros and cons of legalising marijuana
Photo credit: Helen Clark Foundation

The Ken Burns documentary Prohibition covers the amazing story of what happened when the US tried to outlaw alcohol. Needless to say, it did not work. Instead it enriched the likes of Al Capone. But it's the little details that make the documentary, because they throw into sharp relief how prohibition made hypocrisy an everyday part of American life.

The year after prohibition passed, the US became the world's biggest importer of cocktail shakers. What's more, the senators who passed the prohibition amendment frequently gathered together to drink - the bootlegger's son who sold it to them is interviewed in the documentary. They sold it out of a pretend hearse, filled up with bottles of whiskey.

When law enforcement came to call they would drive the hearse to Arlington Cemetery and pretend that they were burying a soldier. Then they would continue their rounds, selling alcohol to members of Congress and the Senate. 

There are similarities to the debate we now find ourselves in about cannabis in New Zealand. 

While I don't advocate the use of cannabis, or any other drug - legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco included - I have no illusions as to how widespread its use is. Evidence from longitudinal studies carried out in New Zealand indicates that by the age of 25, 80 percent of New Zealanders will have tried cannabis at least once. And we too have come to accept hypocrisy. Leading politicians in the 'no' campaign acknowledge that they used to be regular users. What other crime could you so cheerfully admit to during a political campaign with so little fear of consequences? 

Put simply, prohibition-based policy approaches have not eradicated and will not eradicate cannabis consumption and supply in New Zealand or anywhere else where its use is established.

The time has come for New Zealand to face up to the widespread use and supply of cannabis in the country and to legalise it and regulate it accordingly. No useful purpose is served by maintaining its illegal status.

I would like to see cannabis become as boring as possible. Sold in dull packaging that looks like something your hippie grandad buys. Similar approaches to tobacco have had real success at decreasing uptake among young people. For this to happen with cannabis, we first need to stop kidding ourselves.

Ross Bell - executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, a charitable trust working to prevent alcohol and other drug harm


Ross Bell says the estimated $490m in new taxes can be put towards health and education.
Ross Bell says the estimated $490m in new taxes can be put towards health and education. Photo credit: The AM Show

Cannabis is illegal in Aotearoa, yet anyone can buy it easily - 590,000 New Zealanders used it last year alone. Our current law is clearly not working. 

Because cannabis is illegal, we have no control over it. The purpose of the referendum is to put those controls in place, from seed to sale. This will make it safer, and help New Zealanders reduce harmful use over time. 

This is not about creating a new market, or encouraging people to use. In fact, one of the goals of the legislation is to reduce cannabis use over time. Prohibition is proven to be ineffective at doing this, whereas with cannabis legal we can work towards specific health and social outcomes. For example, we can impact use patterns by setting price limits, potency limits, rules around packaging, quality control, age limits and many more.

Then there's the estimated $490 million of new taxes that can put towards health and education for all New Zealanders. A levy will be put aside specifically to fund cannabis-related education, prevention and treatment. That money is currently going directly to the illicit market, untaxed. 

If New Zealanders vote 'yes', Police will be freed up to focus on serious crime. Each year, we spend almost $200 million on cannabis enforcement and convictions - this could be put to better use. The law change would mean thousands fewer New Zealanders convicted each year.

Then there's the compassionate argument. Cannabis can be an effective treatment for a range of conditions. While medicinal cannabis is technically legal in New Zealand with a prescription, there are few products available and they are very expensive. Legal cannabis would mean easier access to a wider range of products, and would make prices more affordable. 

Legalisation means control. What we have now is the opposite, and it's not working.

Voting 'no' in the cannabis referendum

Dr Kate Baddock - chair of the New Zealand Medical Association, a pan-professional medical organisation representing the interests of doctors


Dr Kate Baddock says there's a correlation between cannabis consumption and harm.
Dr Kate Baddock says there's a correlation between cannabis consumption and harm. Photo credit: Parliament

The NZMA holds the position that the social, psychological, and physical harms of cannabis are real and relevant, and does not support the legalisation of cannabis based on those harms.

The social harms of cannabis include particularly the reduction in academic performance in younger people so that they underachieve educationally, and amotivational syndromes that are seen with continued prolonged use, affecting adults' ability and motivation to work. Cannabis also affects the ability to drive safely through psychomotor effects slowing coordination and reaction times and increasing the risk of accidents. Cannabis and driving can be a fatal combination.

The psychological harms include impairment of thought processes, such as the organisation of complex information, short-term memory and executive processes. There is some evidence that these changes are not reversed on cessation of cannabis use, so cognitive function once lost cannot be regained.

Other psychological impacts include changes in mood and paranoia, anxiety, or panic. The association with the development of psychosis is well-recognised, although the strength of the causal relationship has been widely debated. There is also the risk of cannabis dependence (CAD) which appears to be related to a blend of unique environmental and shared environmental characteristics, and genetic propensity.

The physical harms of cannabis are well-documented and are dose related - the greater the consumption, the greater the risk of harm. Smoking cannabis means that not only THC and CBDs are inhaled, but also considerable amounts of plant matter and other toxins produced by burning the plant and inhaling the smoke. Chronic lung conditions such as bronchitis and emphysema are associated with long-term inhalation, as this causes airflow obstruction and wheeze, cough, and sputum production. Regular cannabis use also has an effect on the cells lining the airways increasing the risk of developing lung cancer.

It seems somewhat contradictory that while advocating for SmokeFree 2025 recognising the harms of cigarette smoking, there is being proposed smoking cannabis which also causes lung cancer. As well as being associated with cancer of the lungs, there are also increased risks of cancers of the head, neck and oesophagus.

Cannabis is not safe - like any drug it can and does cause harm - and making it legal for recreational use makes no sense.

Greg Misson - managing director of Eqalis, a medicinal cannabis research company


Greg Misson says doctors need more time to understand the effects of cannabis before legalising it.
Greg Misson says doctors need more time to understand the effects of cannabis before legalising it. Photo credit: Supplied

As the debate about New Zealand's Cannabis Legalisation and Control Referendum heats up, we will vote 'no, not yet' at the ballot in September, as we believe doctors need more time to better understand this new and complex field of medicine.

At Eqalis we are not against the recreational use of cannabis, our 'no, not yet' position is based on health and wellness concerns for all New Zealanders. We believe that doctors need more time to research and study cannabis in order to have the confidence to prescribe it as part of a treatment programme.

How can we expect doctors to have a detailed understanding of treatments and dosages when they have not had the opportunity - or time - to study medicinal cannabis in depth?

To get the full benefit of medicinal cannabis, patients need access to high-quality formulas, designed to specifically treat their medical condition.

Legalising it will lead to people bypassing the doctor and self-medicating, where they are likely to miss out on the very real benefits of properly administered medicinal cannabis.

If we lose the opportunity to develop a confident and informed health profession in New Zealand, we may never get the chance to realise the full therapeutic potential of this complex plant.