Cannabis referendum: Māori candidates make case for legalisation

Three prominent Māori MPs and candidates have come out in favour of voting 'yes' in the cannabis referendum, each with their own reasons.

Labour's Peeni Henare, Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson and Māori Party co-leader John Tamihere, all running for the seat of Tāmaki Makaurau, gave their views in an election debate hosted by The Hui on Tuesday night. 

A question on whether recreational cannabis should be legal will be asked as part of this year's general election. Legislation on how a legal market would work has been drafted, but unlike the euthanasia referendum will not automatically become law if the 'yes' vote wins. 

Henare was to the point, saying he'll be voting in favour as it's a "health concern". 

Davidson said "as well as health, it's also ending the racism in the law that is applied". 

Research has shown Māori are more likely to be arrested and convicted of cannabis-related offences than users of other ethnicities, even when rates of use are taken into account. 

"These same studies found that 95 percent of people who were arrested or convicted of cannabis use either continued using cannabis at a similar or increased rate, suggesting that cannabis laws do not stop people from using," said Reremoana Theodore, who authored a report into use of cannabis amongst Māori released by the University of Otago in July

Drug Foundation statistics show 34 percent of all those convicted of cannabis offences are Māori, despite their proportion of the population being less than half that. There has been a 63 percent decline in charges laid over cannabis-related offences in the last 10 years, Ministry of Justice documents show

Tamihere said he'll be voting yes, but would rather it was only decriminalised, rather than legalised.

Tamihere, Davidson and Henare.
Tamihere, Davidson and Henare. Photo credit: The Hui

A poll last year by The Hui found three-quarters of Māori back legalisation. Drug Foundation director Ross Bell said at the time they had good reasons to back a change

"Cannabis use rates are pretty similar between Māori and non-Māori, but Māori are four times more likely to get a conviction."

Overall the vote is evenly split, with the result likely to go down to the wire. Labour has promised to honour the results of the referendum if re-elected, while National has said it if the 'yes' vote wins, making it law would depend on what the select committee recommended.