NZ Election 2020: Experts discuss the pros and cons of legalisation in cannabis debate

Newshub is hosting a discussion on the cannabis referendum and whether or not it should be legalised for recreational use.

Newshub's national correspondent Patrick Gower is moderating The Cannabis Question and is joined by several in-studio experts as they explore different issues around cannabis and its potential legalisation.

What you need to know

  • The discussion will begin at 8:30pm
  • The latest UMR polling shows 49 percent are in favour of legalising recreational use of the drug and 45 percent are opposed
  • Last week's Newshub-Reid Research polling showed 50.5 percent don't support legalising recreational use and 37.9 said they do
  • Cannabis campaigners believe fewer Māori will get a criminal record if the yes vote wins

The panelists

  • Former Prime Minister Helen Clark
  • Former Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett
  • The Prime Minister's chief science advisor Juliet Gerrard
  • Parent ambassador Petra Bagust
  • Massey University drug researcher Chris Wilkins
  • Director of Māori and Pacific Advancement at AUT Associate Professor Khylee Quince
  • John Paul College principal Patrick Walsh
  • Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis
  • GP and medicinal cannabis specialist Dr Mark Hotu
  • Former police officer Lance Burdett
  • Former police officer Dave Pizzini
  • Community worker Ronji Tanielu
  • NZIER principal economist Peter Wilson

These live updates have finished.

9:33pm - Gower finishes by thanking the panel and viewers at home.

"We hope this has helped you make up your mind," he says.

9:32pm - Community worker Ronji Tanielu asks if Wilson can guarantee those stores won't be in his community.

"If you can guarantee that, I'll have a bit of a think about changing," he says.

Wilson responds by asking if Tanielu can guarantee drug-dealers are out of his community now. 

"No, we're not going to get rid of them," Tanielu replies.
"So can we make it better?" Wilson asks. "Not perfect. Better."

"I don't think legalising does that though," Tanielu replies.

9:31pm - Clark argues it will work because it's a "different model".

"You have a licencing authority that starts with a much tougher regime than alcohol, tobacco, pokies and the rest ever had," she says.

Bennett disagrees, saying: "With all respect Helen, the key is starts. Then it all erodes and it just keeps on getting worse and worse. I mean we want to get rid of tobacco…. We want to get rid of one problem product and now we're just looking at introducing another one legally."

Wilson says we need to put the amount that would be sold into context.

"The total amount spent [in Canada] on legal, illegal and medicinal is about the same as Canadians spend on shoes," he says.

"This is not a massive market, it's not going to be that big. My estimate was about 110 tonnes of cannabis. We currently grow 1200 tonnes of hops."

9:30pm - Clark says that legalisation brings out into the open what is already happening now, although she notes it won't lead to "Amsterdam-style cafes" as people will need to be discrete and there will be restrictions over advertising and so on.

"If people have an image of sitting outside the Manukau Mall or whatever smoking - this isn't going to happen," she says.

"The other thing I would say about the stores is if you want to get rid of the black market or as much of it as you can, then a rural town has to have a store, otherwise where are people going to buy from?

"I really think, Ronji, think about the tinnie shops that are in your community now - it's out there now and it's got no control and we're starting here with something that is far stricter than you ever saw for alcohol or tobacco."

Community worker Ronji Tanielu disagrees.

"You're not going to get rid of those [tinnie houses]. I've talked to some of the boys who are in that world. You're not going to get rid of them if we legalise cannabis. You're never going to get rid of that market," he says.

"One of the things I'm passionate about is the voice of communities. Right now the voice of communities is disempowered by the liquor industry, by the pokie machines, by the lenders.

"So when we're talking about this model that's already broken in other areas and we think that communities or all of us are suddenly going to have some sort of power or voice, it doesn't happen in those places. What makes us think it's going to happen if we legalise cannabis?"

9:29pm - Former Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett is worried that legalisation would change New Zealand.

"We've going to have cafes in our communities and why should there only be 420 stores, quite frankly? Why shouldn't there be the same as alcohol?" she asks.

"Because once we legalise, actually people have a right to access a legalised product - and yes under regulation and everything.

"But we've seen it with alcohol. There are currently something like 19,000 different places you can buy alcohol in New Zealand and we just seen that creep come on over the decades and I personally think it will be the same as with cannabis.

"We're talking about there being public places where people can go to consume it and it just beggars belief that we think that that won't change the kind of society we live in."

9:28pm - Community worker Ronji Tanielu understands there are some protections within the proposed Bill, but doesn't believe they are enough.

"When you look at pokie machines, liquor stores and loan sharks in our communities there are broken models already operating in our communities. Now we're thinking about experimenting by legalising cannabis," he says.

"I think it's a broken model that we want to apply that doesn't work in one area and all of a sudden we think it's magically going to work in another area.

"I think coming from a community perspective, from a community I love in south Auckland, I believe the challenge here is that I think this is an ideological drive for middle New Zealand to legislate their own agenda but package it in a way that it's going to help us brown communities around the country. I absolutely disagree with that."

9:27pm - Gower says a report for the government says legalisation would lead to as many as 419 cannabis stores opened nationwide - 117 of these in rural townships. Auckland alone would have 125.

Clark says there will be fewer licenced stores than tinnie houses. Secondly, she points out there would be strict controls about where they can be - eg they can't be near schools and churches. Thirdly she says there are strict limits on advertising.

9:26pm - Wilson discusses if we can take the illegal market and turn it into a legal market.

"The experience from overseas is that if you have regulation that is not too permissive, so it does put restrictions on quantity and quality then you can see the legal market take over from the illegal, that's an improvement," he says.

"And just on the money you can then use the money to educate people."

9:25pm - Wilkins acknowledges controlling the market is one of the "real risks" that we see from legalisation.

"You get this commercialisation, you get large multinational companies involved who are interested in expanding the market and encouraging normalisation," he says.

"So one solution to that which is actually in the legislation is that we have not-for-profit trusts, community partnerships, but we really think that could go a step further - you have cannabis social clubs, like the RSA of cannabis, and really get the money out of it."

9:24pm - Gower pointed out that the illegal grower was already seeing ways they could continue to operate in a black market under legalisation.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett says her trip to Canada a year ago showed that they were grappling with selecting the right price point.

"You want the price to be right, that you're able to put the black market out of business, you want the level of THC to be right," she says.

"Ultimately if we're going to make the kind of money the economists are saying, the legal product has to be more expensive and less potent, so your black market guy can sell something cheaper but more potent. Are we really going to get rid of that black market?"

9:23pm - Former Prime Minister Helen Clark says one of the things that appeals about legalisation is "you can make honest citizens out of growers".

"There are people who want to be able to be proud of what they're doing and be shown  to be supporting their families through an hornets livelihood," she says.

"I think with respect to the sales through the informal economy - shall we say - you can't expect to stop on day one. There will be a transition over time you'll get most of it into the legal market.

"I do think it can put a lot of the tinnie houses out of business, that's my view."

9:22pm - Would a yes vote end the black market?

One illegal grower says they'd like to grow and supply high-quality cannabis legally.

"The reality with the black market is tinnie houses aren't checking ids. There is no quality standards process," they say.

However they're worried the licencing and regulation regime will be too strict, providing a space for the black market to continue.

"We want to put purchase limits on cannabis and we want to put potency limits on it. By doing that you've already just gone and given the black market its business model. Selling high denominations, selling ounces and growing high-THC stuff," he says.

9:21pm - Parent Petra Bagust says she doesn't trust the money issue.

"I would be more interested in what's going to cause the most benefit to the young people and keep them safest rather than what's going to make the most money," she says.

"I see the money as a conflating or clouding issue because I know that… once we get a Bill, even if we love the Bill we got through legalisation, even if it was the safest possible, it will be eroded over time because of profiteering."

9:20pm - Gower says legalisation would be great for the economy, providing jobs and boosting taxation - with one report even suggesting it could give an extra $1.4 billion to the Government.

First up is New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) principal economist Peter Wilson says if the illegal market is replaced by the legal market his estimate was around $450 million.

"The important point is it will come from the legal market," he adds.

NZ Election 2020: Experts discuss the pros and cons of legalisation in cannabis debate
Photo credit: Getty Images

9:16pm - Gower asks the Prime Minister's chief science advisor Juliet Gerrard if people are doing it anyway, and is this having an impact on driving and the workplace.

"Clearly it's happening, we just heard that tragic story that happened under the current framework," she replies.

"The big open question is whether it increases or decreases with more education in a legal framework and we just don't know the answer. But either ways we need to do more work on testing so we know when people are impared when drinking and working."

Wilkins says potentially with cannabis legalisation it would then require all business and government agencies to actually respond to that new environment by coming up with better testing and regulations.

"It's happening now already but because it's illegal we kind of pretend it's not there but if we legalise cannabis all workplaces would really have to address that issue head-on."

9:15pm - Former police officer Dave Pizzini says the biggest problem with the normalisation of cannabis use is no one can say what a safe time is between last use and driving a vehicle.

"I know that the transport industry are very concerned about this legislation being legalised," he says.

"We've seen too many tragedies in the forestry industry in the last few years. Something like nine deaths a year.

"What I'd really like to see is with those sorts of workplace deaths is having mandatory… testing for drugs [in the post-mortem]."

9:14pm - Gower says when he was filming his cannabis documentary he talked to police in Colorado who said it was so difficult to prove someone was impaired by cannabis as opposed to taking it the night before they gave up enforcing the law.

9:13pm - Will roadside testing stop drugged-driving?

"I think the issue here is that we haven't been very serious about drug driving in general - including meth but also cannabis - so if anything at least the legislation of cannabis would bring a focus on this and we'd start thinking seriously about impairment tests but also really good driver education which is one of the keys with alcohol," says Massey University drug researcher Chris Wilkins.

"So once we get the legalisation question decided there's opportunities to respond to that in different ways."

9:12pm - Gower asks former police officer Dave Pizzini if legalising cannabis will worsen our already tragic road toll.

"Yes it will," he answers "Cannabis is harmful and addictive. We are concerned about people's addictions yet the limit has been set quite high at 15 percent. I am very worried about the road toll increasing."

Gerrard says it's "really hard to know" the impacts on drugged-driving using results from places where cannabis has been legalised.

"Of all the studies that we put on the table for the panel to look at, I think it's fair to say those were the ones the panel were most skeptical of," she says.

"It starts off illegal so people are less honest. And some of the metholidify used in some of the studies, it doesn't really stack up."

9:11pm - Ron Crone knows the pain this can cause. In 2017, his 24-year-old son Ethan Crone was killed in a car accident. The biggest factor in Ethan's crash was cannabis.

"The night before he died he sat in his car for two hours late at night hotboxing," Ron says.

When Ethan afterwards he missed an intersection and went over a small stop bank. He died alone at the scene shortly afterwards.

"He lay here with a bone sticking out of his leg," Ron says. "My son did not deserve to die like that. I was washing the blood away from my son when he lay here. And people were coming up to have a final smoke or thief and smoke some cannabis.

"Cannabis is seen as some wonder drug. It's bloody well not. It's taking lives and it's causing injuries."

9:10pm - Gower introduces the next topic - the impact of cannabis on our road toll. He cites a Ministry of Health report showing one in three Kiwis who consume cannabis say they've driven under the influence.

NZ Election 2020: Experts discuss the pros and cons of legalisation in cannabis debate
Photo credit: Getty Images

9:06pm - Former police officer Dave Pizzini, who's on the no side, says even if it's legalised police will have to deal with "constant complaints" about public use, youth usage and access, potency and unlicensed growers.

"Cannabis and other drugs are a driver of crime," he adds.

9:05pm - Prof Quince says there's a lot of common ground with Tanielu.

"We don't want people to use it problematically, we don't want a proliferation of shops in our communities where they may cause harm," she says.

"But am I going to wait for people who really have not done a lot… there's a lot of people who are saying 'we need to do other things to bring about transformation in the justice system'.

"A lot of those are people who are not pushing for that so they're just… that's on the never-never for them. So I don't think it's going to happen fast enough for my reckoning."

9:04pm - Community worker Ronji Tanielu says he's "strongly voting no" in the referendum.

"The primary reason why is I believe if we legalise cannabis in this case we will add to and create more harm in communities like mine," he says.

"When you look at the numbers deeper as well you see that over the last 10 years there has been a shift in the numbers of Māori that have been convicted and charged around cannabis.

"Is the shift quick enough? Probably not eh. Are Māori disproportionately represented in that? Absolutely. But the change is happening, the trend is happening over the past 10 years.

"So I think when we want to legalise this harmful substance and we think it's going to deal to all the issues we're talking about, I don't think it's the answer."

9:03pm - On the other hand, former police officer Lance Burdett says the problem is the law is not prescriptive enough.

"For example 140km/h over the speed limit you lose your car for 28 days. That's prescriptive," he says.

"So if we have a few more rules and regulations around it that we're able to enforce that says 'if this happens, this is the result', I think that would help remove that bias."

9:02pm - Gower asks former police officer Dave Pizzini if there's unconscious bias in our police force that's causing them to arrest more Māori.

Pizzini says New Zealand's police officers are recruited from our communities.

"If there's unconscious bias or racial bias in our communities then it will exist in the police. I have to say though in the past 25 years it's been a lot of training for Māori responsiveness.

"This Bill, if it passes into law, would not be the panacea to dealing with unconscious bias in the police. If that is a problem then fix it but this Bill would make no difference to that situation."

9:01pm - AUT Associate Professor Khylee Quince says Walsh's story is not an unusual one.

"Māori have brought the brunt of the harms of prohibition for more than 50 years," she says.

"There are still a couple of thousands who are still criminalised for low-level possession and use of cannabis.

"We know the police will tell us their approach to law enforcement of cannabis has changed in the past 20 years and that's generally true but not for Māori. So Māori have still not gained the benefit of this new discretionary approach, including the decriminalisation approach."

Quince says we need full legalisation to change this instead.

8:59pm - Gower points to research showing Māori are three times more likely to be arrested and convinced of a cannabis-related crime.

Former cannabis dealer - and now 'yes' vote activist and social worker - Tricia Walsh says she sold marijuana to make a living. It became a way to feed her children, but she was targeted by police.

"Once you get a record, it absolutely limits your opportunities," she says.

"You come out of prison, usually you go back to doing what you know and then you're seen as a recidivist offender, someone who hasn't learnt.

"But you've never been given the opportunities or the tools to learn another way of being and another way of living. It's such a racist approach because it's my people, to me we just get beaten and beaten and beaten."

NZ Election 2020: Experts discuss the pros and cons of legalisation in cannabis debate
Photo credit: Getty Images

8:55pm - Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis says 20 is an arbitrary age limit.

"It's definitely negative for teenagers and there is less evidence showing that it's causatively negative for adults. So it does start to drop off around that 18-20. So if you're going to choose an age I imagine 18-20 a good-enough age as any."

Wallis says the advantage of cannabis being legalised is youth already live in a world where they are doing it.

"Now if they're caught there's a punitive criminal response," he says.

"I just think if it was legalised it would be better off for our teenagers overall. There would be a health response to their use of marijuana rather than a punitive one."

8:54pm - Gower asks Bagust if legalisation would prevent parents from being able to say to children "it's illegal, don't do it".

Bagust doesn't this is enough of a negative to change the whole system for.

"Whether it's legal or not it's hard for parents to engage in these tricky topics but the more honest, more open and the more we build connection, the less likely our child is to end up down the route of addiction," she says.

8:53pm - Dr Gerrard says it sounds like it's normal to use among young people already. Walsh says having cannabis as a criminal offence is a bottom line that makes teenagers think "actually I don't want to go there".

8:52pm - Gower asks Walsh if legalising will make it uncool for kids.

"My biggest concern... is we're being sold regulation as a silver bullet and I remember when they reduced the alcohol age from 20 to 18," Walsh replies.

"We were told then it wouldn't fall into the hands of teenagers and yet we have binge drinking amongst teenagers, drunk driving's still a major issue and we've also got major issues around vaping and synthetic cannabis. Likewise, they were promised to be strongly regulated so I don't really have a great deal of confidence despite the fact they say it will be strongly regulated.

"We know as the research shows it leads to truancy, depression, drop-out rates and a whole lot of adverse consequences and my concern is if it is normalised teenagers will definitely get hold of it and it's going to become an endemic problem in schools."

8:51pm - Dr Juliet Gerrard, the Prime Minister's chief science advisor, responds saying the research on normalisation of cannabis-use is "tricky to get a handle on".

"Some people would say that it's normal now, it's just that we don't talk about it because we can't get it legally," she says.

"There isn't a huge amount of research that says it will be normalised and youth [usage] will go up."

8:50pm - Bagust says her children are 13, 15, and 17 and she's concerned "children might become guinea pigs".

"The idea that cannabis might become normalised and commercialised fills me with a lot of questions," she says.

"I am concerned about whether we are mature enough as a society to use what is a powerful plant… we're really not that mature in how we do our drinking. So how can we birth maturity in our children who are most at harm."

8:49pm - Gower welcomes on two new guests: television presenter and parent Petra Bagust and secondary school principal Patrick Walsh.

Gower says concerns about our young is one of the biggest reasons people are apprehensive about legalisation.

NZ Election 2020: Experts discuss the pros and cons of legalisation in cannabis debate
Photo credit: Getty Images

8:44pm - Gower questions the amount that will be available for sale - 14 grams a day. Is it too much?

"We can go to the grog store, fill it up with crates of grog, no one thinks we're going to drink it all the same daty," Clark responds.

"I think it's the same as a cannabis store. People will buy an amount that will last them for a while. They're not going to go and smoke the 14 grams all in one go."

Bennett says it "seems a lot" but understands the argument that people in rural areas would need to buy larger amounts.

"The 14 grams is not something I'm that worked up about, to be honest," she says.

8:43pm - Bennett says something we all can agree on is we don't want young people consuming cannabis.

"Do we really think under 20-year-olds, because we legalise, are no longer going to go and illegally get the drug?" she says.

"They'll still go get it from the tinnie house - I'm sorry - becuase that's what they do. They're young, they're experimenting, they're trying things out."

8:42pm - Gower asks if anyone has tried 15 percent THC cannabis. He sticks his hand up in response to his own question.

"I did it legally in California, the weed-tea. That was sort of the 'choo-choo moment'. That really had some effect. I can see it's good to have a limit," he says.

8:41pm - Gower asks Massey University drug researcher Dr Chris Wilkins if the proposed 15 percent THC cap would help.

"It certainly helps and there should be a cap because there's a lot of evidence that says very high potency THC is associated with dependency and psychosis," he says.

"Whether it's the right cap that's something we've questioned so the average potency of THC is 5-10 percent, so the cap is at the higher end of that."

Dr Wilkins suggests limiting the cap to 10 percent instead.

8:39pm - Gower asks science experts if Jake's experience is common.

"A minority of users, if they use it young, very often and potent products, that can happen to a minority of users if they're predisposed to those sorts of symptoms," says the Prime Minister's chief science advisor Dr Juliet Gerrard.

"The question isn't really if that happens or not, the question is whether it's more or less likely to happen if we legalise it."

Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis says what might have been happening to Jake is the cannabis was "shrinking his hippocampus", which controls memory.

"That sounds like an extreme reaction to me, there was probably lots going on in his brain more than just the typically what the research would show - the reduced size of the amygdala - the emotional brain - the reduced size of the hippocampus."

GP Dr Mark Hotu adds we know cannabis is "not a benign drug" which is why it's a controlled drug in New Zealand.

"We know it can cause anxiety and paranoia, psychosis. We know it can unmask and exacerbate schizophrenia and at our clinic we go to great lengths to screen people for as to those who should and shouldn't have THC," he says.

"I think if we're going to legalise it and have dispensaries it would be a really good idea to have health professionals there who can screen and advise and even educate people on THC use."

8:38pm - Gower shares the experience of Jake, who began smoking every day at a young age and paid the price.

"When I was young I got heavily into smoking weed. I wanted everyone to smoke weed," he says.

"I was smoking so much weed that I lost my perspective and lost my grip on reality. My motivation dropped, my mood dropped massively and my IQ dropped by 30 points. I had to think about walking.

"I started hearing voices saying things that weren't there. 'You're crap, you're useless'. You're literally hearing that yelled at you and 'you're pathetic, you suck' and 'why are you even living'.

"I just started having a real massive panic attack and huge anxiety and thought my heart was stopping.

"I actually had drug-induced psychosis. For me it took years and years to rebuild and it's terrifying. It's a very scary place to be."

8:37pm - Have Bennett and Clark smoked cannabis?

"I've consumed socially when I was in my late teens, early 20s. Less than a handful of times," Bennett says.

Clark says she used it "half a century ago when I was a student".

"There wasn't a party you went to where it wasn't handed around," Clark responds.

"That's the reality, and that's why the figures say that up to 80 percent of Kiwis at some point have touched it. Our PM said this the other night. That is the reality."

8:36pm - Clark says the question isn't if you think cannabis should be available - "it is very widely available and it has been for many many decades".

"For me the issue is getting control of it, about getting a legal regime, determining what the strength is that's sold, having the age limit, having the licensed premise, the plain packaging - really getting control on the market. Otherwise we turn a blind eye to the fact that organised crime, by and large, is pedalling this stuff to anyone anywhere."

8:35pm - Bennett says the reason she's voting no is because "we don't know enough about it".

"I worry about things like 'what is impairment'. I agree - I don't think someone who had a puff on a joint two weeks later is impaired, but how much should a pilot have before they fly a plane?" she asks.

"I worry about drugged driving - we're seeing that increase.

"I just think it's a social experiment that we don't know enough about… and we should be waiting a few more years until we've got more information."

8:34pm - Gower's first question is to Helen Clark - voting yes - and Paula Bennett - voting no. Is cannabis harmful?

"For most people I don't think it is," Clark says. "For most people they're going to have it socially on a Saturday night or a Friday night and it's not going to cause them any harm.

"There are circumstances in which it shouldn't be consumed - particularly by the young. I think if you could have it legal then you get all the facts out on the table and can have some more realistic education about what consuming it actually means."

Bennett says she agrees with Clark.

"It depends on your age when you start, the frequency, the strength of it, and all of that kind-of matters," she says.

"An adult having an occasional vape or cookie once a week, for most of them it's not going to do them any harm. No more or less harm than a couple glasses of wine."

8:30pm - Gower kicks things off by introducing the 13 debate panel guests.

Next up is a discussion of what's being voted on in the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill. 

The Bill intends to eliminate the illegal supply of cannabis, restrict young people's access to cannabis, and make sure the response to any breach of the law is fair.

It would also control the production and supply of cannabis, including controlling the potency and contents of licensed cannabis and cannabis products.

8:15pm - The latest Newshub-Reid Research poll, which was released last week, shows the majority of voters are set to vote 'no' in the cannabis referendum.

A total of 50.5 percent of people said they don't support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, 37.9 percent do support it, 10.9 percent didn't know and 0.8 percent say they won't vote on it.

8pm - Welcome to Newshub's live updates for The Cannabis Question, a discussion with a panel of experts on whether or not the drug should be legalised for recreational use.

The debate, which begins at 8:30pm, is moderated by Newshub's national correspondent Patrick Gower and features guests from both sides of the cannabis argument.