Cannabis referendum: Legalisation of cannabis will reduce Māori arrests, campaigners say

Cannabis referendum: Legalisation of cannabis will reduce Māori arrests, campaigners say
Photo credit: Getty

By Meriana Johnsen of RNZ

Cannabis campaigners say fewer Māori will get a criminal record if New Zealanders vote yes in the referendum, with research showing a reduction in arrest rates for African-Americans in US states where it has been legalised.

Justice advocacy group JustSpeak commissioned research into whether legalisation in North America has reduced disparities in arrest rates for people of colour and how that could apply to criminal justice outcomes for Māori if New Zealanders vote in favour of legalisation at the referendum.

It found that the first US jurisdiction to legalise, Washington State, saw an 8-fold decrease in African American's being charged for cannabis offences.

Professor of criminology at Victoria University, Fiona Hutton, supervised the research and said it indicated there would be a drop for similarly over-criminalised groups like Māori if cannabis was legalised.

"That would be a positive that we could see under the New Zealand system, if the yes vote went ahead, that we would see a decrease in convictions and prosecutions for minor cannabis offences across all diverse groups," Hutton said.

However, while there was an overall drop in Washington state, the disparity between cannabis criminal justice outcomes for whites and African Americas actually increased.

Hutton said that was because people of colour are still being overly-targeted for offences that sit outside the legal framework, for example, when people under the legal age limit are caught possessing cannabis.

That won't be a problem in New Zealand as those under the age limit of 20 who are caught with cannabis will not be criminalise, but Hutton said the government still needed to be mindful of discriminative policing of cannabis.

She said elected officials should look to the likes of the Racial and Identity Profiling Act in California, passed in 2015, where police have to record information like ethnicity on all initial interactions between law enforcement and members of the public.

"We can build up much more information about police practices and then hopefully intervene in harmful policing practices."

Reducing the stigma of cannabis is the main motivator of legalisation campaigner Roxxane Williams-Tai.

She grew up in fear as her whānau grew and consumed cannabis - and she ended up trying it for the first time when she was in her mid-teens.

"I hated it even more to be honest... [and then] in my 20s, I used it to escape my life, not to enhance it."

However, she is now a strong advocate for the medicinal properties of cannabis and will be voting in favour of legalisation.

"I was actually quite against it only because I would rather it be decriminalised than legalised, the thing that worries me is that people will get greedy and see the money side of things and not necessarily the health side of things.

"I do like that it will keep it off the black market."

She sees legalisation as a way to stop harmful cannabis use in rangatahi.

Mamaeroa Merito has been helping run a campaign to get Māori students to vote yes at the referendum because she said the current system is not working for Māori.

"Māori and Pākehā use at the exact same rates but Māori are three times more likely to end up going through our court system, getting picked up by the police, having terrible experiences that impact not just them but their whānau as a whole and can have long and lasting impacts on their lives and livelihoods, so that's a real concern for us," Merito said.

While most of the rangatahi she has engaged with are voting yes, Merito was worried older Māori voters will vote against legalisation which is a concern shared by Drug Foundation chair, Tuari Potiki.

He was urging people to vote use as the evidence overwhelmingly shows criminalisation already harms Māori and that the application of the current law was racist.

"If your kid or your mokopuna has a problem with cannabis or any other drug, how do you want them to be treated?

"Do you want a criminal justice approach where they are arrested and given a conviction that's going to be there for the rest of their lives ... or do you want a hauora, some sort of health intervention - it's that simple really."