Cannabis referendum: Health experts lay out the case for voting 'yes'

Four of the country's top medical experts are urging voters to tick 'yes' in the cannabis referendum, saying it's not a vote for the drug, but against a status quo that is failing to protect vulnerable Kiwis.

The non-binding referendum, underway now, is asking voters if they "support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill". Recent polls have had the vote split down the middle, with one showing the 'no' camp in the lead, and two others putting 'yes' narrowly in front.

In a new article for the New Zealand Medical Journal (NZMJ), published on Friday, four health experts put forward the case for ending prohibition. They are Sam McBride, addictions psychiatrist at the Capital & Coast District Health Board; Prof Papaarangi Mary-Jane Reid, head of Maori health at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences; Prof Louise Signal, head of public health at the University of Otago; and a face that will be familiar to those who've followed the news during the pandemic, University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker.

They say the cannabis referendum is a "once in a generation opportunity to place evidence-informed controls around a substance that is widely used and unregulated", praising the Bill Andrew Little and Parliament have come up with. 

"If the referendum is successful, it will result in public health legislation with world-leading goals and aspirations that could serve as a model for other countries," they argue.

Michael Baker.
Michael Baker. Photo credit: Newshub.

Their stance is at odds with the official stance of the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA), which publishes the NZMJ

"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," chair Kate Baddock told Newshub in August. Members of the NZMA have since complained they weren't consulted before the organisation went public with its stance.

In July, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor Juliet Gerrard released a summary of what's known about cannabis, the impact of the law here and how legalising it has gone overseas. In the NZMJ article, the experts say it's clear prohibition doesn't work - Prof Gerrard's summary showing 95 percent of those arrested of cannabis-related offences in New Zealand continuing to smoke it regardless.

"This finding ties in with European research that found no clear association between the level of penalty applying to illicit cannabis use, and overall use rates."

Māori are several times more likely to be arrested and convicted for cannabis offences.

"This fallout from our drug laws is a high and inequitable price to pay for a policy that is not effective at reducing harmful use," the experts say.

"Māori advocates pushed hard last year to ensure that the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill would not replace one set of criminal penalties with another. That goal has largely been achieved, with most penalties - for example for using in a prohibited area or carrying more than 14g - being civil rather than criminal. 

"Such a penalty would function like a speeding ticket: no one wants to get one and people change their behaviour to avoid one, but getting one usually has limited lifelong impact."

The Bill will also set aside funds for health services, the authors say, for the expected increase in use by adults, as has been seen overseas.

"This increase has the potential to result in greater harms from cannabis, including higher rates of accidents, poor mental health outcomes, and dependency. However the Bill provides a framework to reduce these harms through an evidence-informed policy framework. This situation contrasts sharply with the current unregulated environment."

Use by kids has almost doubled in recent years under prohibition, they say, but the evidence from overseas is that use doesn't go up for youth under legal regimes. 

All-up, the authors say supporting change "is a vote for health, not handcuffs". 

"A yes vote is not a vote in support of cannabis - it is a vote in support of placing public health controls around a substance that is currently left to the black market to manage."

If Kiwis vote yes, the proposed legislation will still have to go through the select committee process before becoming law. The National Party hasn't committed to seeing it through if the referendum does pass, but is also unlikely to win the election. Labour, which is paying just five cents on the dollar to win on the betting markets, has committed to following through with legalisation if the referendum passes.