Smoke signals: Why cannabis referendum supporters should be careful what they vote for

For supporters of the legislation to legalise marijuana, it’s a case of be careful what you vote for. By Jane Clifton.

Anyone who approaches the referendum on the legalisation of cannabis in the binary spirit of Roundheads versus Cavaliers is in for a few surprises.

The message that seems to have got lost in the furious “evil” or “harmless fun” rhetoric of opposing sides is that what’s proposed would be the most grudging of liberalisations. The proposed law is framed in such a way that, if enacted, it could cause almost as much aggravation to those who support legalised cannabis as those who oppose it.

Look past the exuberant Rasta colours of its supporters and it’s clear the legislation is predicated on the basis that cannabis use is not good for us. For a not insignificant proportion of users, the evidence shows it’s catastrophically, life-blightingly bad.

The proposed legal framework will enable people to use the drug more freely, but its overarching purpose is to discourage its use. It treats cannabis not as a harmless pleasure, but as a medical threat deserving of intervention.

Those hailing an economic bonanza may be right – but the law would make new cannabis entrepreneurs behave in ways that will be antithetical to their commercial interests. They won’t be allowed to advertise or sell online. As for finding ways to pitch to new demographic segments or grow the market – that’s not the success this legislation is designed to achieve. Again, the purpose is to discourage and reduce use of the drug, not to foster it and not to make it socially acceptable.

The spirit of this project may best be summed up by what a former pro-liberalisation adviser to Britain’s Conservative Government, Danny Kruger, wrote in the Spectator magazine: “We do not need to ban everything bad. After all, the Victorians never prohibited alcohol. They regulated it, taxed it and hedged it about with a culture of disapproval. Instead of the prohibition of cannabis, we need an old Victorian virtue: temperance.”

The anti-cannabis component of the proposed regime is decidedly passive-aggressive. No one is going to be sectioned for being stoned beyond certain quantified degrees or time periods. But the state’s over-mastering of the new legal cannabis market would probably make the drug more expensive, which, as was seen with ever-steeper tobacco tax, can be a highly effective deterrent.

Money, money, money

The price structure will involve money for dependency treatment, counselling and public education about the risks of usage, as well as for data collection, regulation of the entire supply chain, supervision of designated retailers and administration of all the above.

Economists Berl have estimated this will generate revenue not far shy of $1 billion.
A further caveat on voters’ decision is that the legislation could change. This Parliament cannot bind the next with what is still just a draft bill. In contrast, the legislation that would give effect to voluntary euthanasia if the vote there is “yes” has been passed.

In theory, at least, in the event of a yes vote on cannabis, MPs would be honour-bound to enact the bill’s basic tenets – the ability to buy up to 14 grams a day, grow four plants per household and become a licensed grower, processor or seller – as well as implementing the countervailing health remediation funded from various imposts on the drug.

But those wanting to develop the new commercial industry could be expected to lobby hard to soften some of the proposed restrictions to give them a better chance of viability. Equally, if the next Parliament is considerably more conservative on cannabis, the bill could be further toughened or even – though this is highly unlikely – jettisoned.

One strong motivation for Parliament’s pro-reform MPs is the possibility of weakening the gangs’ hold on cannabis supply.

But the confounding experience of overseas countries and states that have legalised or decriminalised cannabis is that the illegal market continues to thrive. That’s partly because the current gang/criminal supply chains are well established and – no pun intended – user-friendly and also because a heavily regulated legal market will struggle to compete on price.

There may even be a pragmatic argument: since last year’s Misuse of Drugs Act amendment gave the police discretion over policing cannabis offences, the status quo will continue to suit many users better than the legalisation. As the police hardly ever bother to prosecute for it any more, the black market may be the easier, cheaper option for many recreational users.

Although this de facto decriminalisation was controversial, one reason for it was that fear of prosecution doesn’t appear to deter people from using, with research showing only 5 per cent of those before the courts for cannabis-related charges stopped using the drug afterwards.

Prosecutions were already falling – a 59 per cent decrease in the past decade. For the 2019/20 year, of 2528 people with cannabis convictions, three-quarters were also convicted of other offences. Fewer than 600 were convicted of cannabis-only offences and just five received prison sentences. Whatever the referendum’s outcome, these numbers are expected to fall further.

The gateway to meth

Although the gangs’ side of the criminality equation isn’t likely to disappear with liberalisation, it could curtail their ability to sell harder drugs. The gangs have taken to deliberately withholding the supply of cannabis to encourage customers to try a little something else. From time to time, they create an artificial shortage and offer clients either synthetic highs or meth instead.

Synthetics are a potential gateway to meth and other hard drugs, unlike cannabis, and meth is notoriously addictive and destructive. Meth is also much more lucrative to the gangs, according to Police Association president Chris Cahill.

“There’s no doubt the gangs control the cannabis market, either by growing it themselves or in some cases licensing others and taxing them. You’ll see these shortages even in places like Northland where, frankly, it grows wild, and there’s no logical reason for it to be in short supply. But they will offer people meth instead, which is a far more serious drug.”

Cahill says there’s a strong argument that legal cannabis is not only not a gateway to harder drugs, but it could serve as an anti-gateway. If people were to able to buy legal weed during a gang-wrought dearth of the illegal kind – albeit inevitably at higher prices – that could deter the spread of meth use.

The ace in the hole

But there’s also a huge moral dilemma entailed, and it’s not the one about vice and virtue, the body being a temple or even “Will no one think of the children?” It’s about racial discrimination. The arrest and prosecution data show with deadly clarity that Māori cannabis users have been much more readily criminalised than non-Māori before the police’s discretion existed, and therefore it’s reasonable to fear disproportionate treatment of Māori could continue if the illegality is not abolished.

This grim reality is an ace in the hole for liberalisation advocates. It was part of the impetus behind relieving police of the obligation to pursue cannabis-related offences – the fear that they were finding it too convenient a gateway to trawl for more serious offending and prosecuting for it whether they found anything worse or not.

But the reform lobby’s main campaign cry has been, “It’s a health issue”. Although problem usage can be treated and reversed, the question remains: will this new system achieve much of this?

As with problem drinkers and gamblers, those whose cannabis use affects their health and life chances adversely are not necessarily going to see it that way and seek treatment. As things stand, just 11 per cent of cannabis users the police come across receive medical referrals.

Even if most problem users were to succumb to the new state browbeating, New Zealand lacks the volume of qualified professionals, let alone the residential facilities needed for serious cases, to meet the demand. It’s not just the money required but the availability of the right counsellors and support staff.

The legislation needs to be seen in the context of the existing and future mental health system. That has had a considerable boost in funding this parliamentary term, but not all the allocated money is being spent because of a chronic lack of staff and facilities.

People suffering from mental health problems, even minors at risk of self-harm, already face lengthy waiting times for help via the public system. Cannabis use can sometimes be a component of mental health problems, but whether it is or not, users who experience problems will be joining a swelling queue for treatment.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused more serious mental health problems but also made it nigh impossible to import health professionals to make up for our treatment skills shortages. Our longer-lived population means we’re also now in for what the Economist magazine recently termed “a bow wave of dementia”, mandating a further drain on health and residential care resources.

It was telling that the National Party, even in the big-promise land of the current election campaign, felt able to guarantee only 13 beds for addict victims of the exponentially more dangerous drug, methamphetamine. The meth problem is seen as a crisis. Few would view cannabis use as being in the same category.

Health pluses & minuses

However, research suggests compounds in cannabis may be useful in delaying the onset of dementia, so the plant may one day be more boon than burden to the healthcare budget. Cannabis naturally generates neurons, whereas dementia-type diseases deplete neurons and interfere with their networks.

Confoundingly, cannabis’s chronic use or overuse can permanently damage memory, and its effects are sometimes misdiagnosed as the onset of a brain deterioration disease.
Ageing naturally destroys neurons in the hippocampus, but chronic exposure to THC, cannabis’ psychoactive ingredient, may hasten that loss. Rats exposed to THC every day for eight months – nearly a third of their lifespan – showed a level of nerve cell loss at 11 to 12 months of age that equalled that of unexposed animals twice their age.

Then there’s the issue of second-hand cannabis ingestion. The drug is most commonly smoked, and though the research is far from exhaustive, it suggests second-hand cannabis smoke is just as physically harmful as tobacco smoke, with the added effect of temporarily reducing people’s clarity and reflexes.

“Contact-high” is an anecdotal phenomenon known to some teachers, who find there are children who lack concentration on Mondays because, it is assumed, their parents have been smoking cannabis near them during the weekend.

In one human trial, non-smokers who spent three hours in a well-ventilated space with people casually smoking marijuana had THC in their blood, though well below the level needed to fail a drug test. Another study that varied ventilation and potency levels found non-smokers had cannabis-positive urine and, in a follow-up study, mild impairments in their motor skills.

Removing the stigma

Legalisation proponents argue, however, that abuse prevention will be easier if the criminal stigma comes off the drug. It makes it easier to discuss if there’s no fear of police interest, and that’s especially important in the schoolroom, where the message is most needed. The cannabis risk profile, particularly for children and teenagers, is scarily high.

The world-leading University of Otago Longitudinal Study found that the younger a person starts using, the more physical, mental and social harm it causes them. Study leader Professor Richie Poulton led the preparation of a paper on issues concerning the proposed legalisation. It came out in favour of liberalisation, though it favoured the interim step of decriminalisation.

Although it noted most cannabis users incurred little or no harm, it said 5-10 per cent of the population were at heightened risk because they smoked on most days, had developed dependency or had began using in mid-adolescence and continued well into adulthood.

A experts’ panel convened by the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Juliet Gerrard, also found a yes vote would probably lead to a reduction in social harms and in systemic racism in policing.

But even though both assessments found much to favour in the proposed reform, they were emphatic that cannabis is not a safe substance. Gerrard’s panel also noted the uncertainty about the legal market’s workings and effects.

One common fear of the proposed ease-up on weed that doesn’t seem to have been borne out overseas is the risk of greater underage usage. Cannabis use adversely affects brain development in those under about 25, as parts of the brain don’t stop growing until the mid-twenties. No matter what hard facts teens are taught about the dangers, opponents worry legalisation sends a tacit message that the state thinks using cannabis is safe. There’s also the fear that children will have readier access to it, even though it would be illegal to supply it to anyone under 20.

Gerrard’s panel says there’s no evidence cannabis is a gateway drug to harder substance use.

And looking at overseas jurisdictions, it’s hard to find evidence of greater underage use. There has tended to be a moderate sustained increase in adult use but no clear change in use patterns among the groups most susceptible to harm: young users and heavy users.
Studies in the US, where 11 states have legalised cannabis to some degree, have shown increases and decreases in youth usage of about 2-4 per cent or no change. In Canada, there has been no reported change in those aged 15-25; ditto for Uruguay.

General usage, however, does appear to rise once the authorities raise the white flag. The state of Washington found the presence in waterways of THC had doubled in the three years since legalisation.

Potent strains

On the subject of THC, a very practical benefit of legalisation would be the Government’s ability to limit the strength of what’s available. Buyers from the illegal supply chain have no idea how much THC they’re ingesting, but chances are it’s not trivial. Strength varies widely, but the industry has tended to produce plants that are very much stronger than in previous decades. This is not the same toke that parents or grandparents smoked in their rebellious youth.

Unlike liquor and cigarettes, cannabis will be subject to a degree of rationing, though this has become a bit of a red herring in the debate. The daily sales limit of 14g per customer is unlikely to be widely interpreted as a maximum safe dose or to lead to new levels of binge use. Just as few people buy and consume alcohol and cigarettes all in one go, it’s expected cannabis users will stock up a bit at a time, as they do now.

Some opponents and wavering “yes” voters fear a return of the disturbing scenes outside “legal high” retailers in 2014, when certain synthetic drugs were made legal. These synthetic drugs had an unpredictable variety of behavioural effects on users – not something that could be said of cannabis. Its culpability in causing violence is vanishingly tiny. Nor does it generally leave people so fonged that they sprawl about unconscious in the streets, as with synthetics. Its behavioural impacts are uniform and predictable. It relaxes people.

Berl envisages a successful market here could in time support more than 400 shops selling cannabis and accoutrements, some of which would be allowed to host usage on their premises.

As for the green El Dorado some entrepreneurs anticipate, that’s not always the way it pans out. In Canada, where only 20 per cent of cannabis is bought through the legal marketplace, many new providers have gone broke because, among other things, they couldn’t match, let alone beat, the price or convenience of the underground product. Having to pay government imposts made them less competitive, and where, for sundry reasons, licensed retailers were scarce, they lost out to their criminal counterparts in some districts.

As one grower-manufacturer told the Observer newspaper, “You have to provide a superior experience to the illicit market. When it comes to cannabis, this is not easy. Dealers … can offer a sweet deal and deliver a product to your door. For most people, cannabis use is a relaxing, problem-free and enjoyable experience. Buying the drug needs to match that experience, and until it does, the illicit market will continue.”

It’s also a crop, subject to climatic and other logistical issues, which can make or break viability at the retail end.

Thorny issue

Perhaps the thorniest issue, however, is the correlation of cannabis use with poverty, particularly among Māori. Cannabis use here is most widespread in districts of deprivation, and Māori – 16 per cent of the population – consume nearly a quarter of all cannabis.

This presents an ongoing regulatory dilemma, as the aim is to reduce use, particularly among the most vulnerable to social deprivation. Reformers wouldn’t be happy to see the price factor relegate the lower deciles to sticking with the black market, while the better-off enjoyed the benefits of the safe, crime-free legal market.

It’s an issue that unites two prominent Māori leaders traditionally at political loggerheads. Former Mana Movement MP Hone Harawira and New Zealand First Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones vehemently oppose making cannabis more easily available. Both lament the debilitating effects of regular cannabis use – along with alcohol and other substance abuse – on poor Māori communities.

Jones adds a codicil to his pro-development cry, “Get the ne’er-do-well nephs off the couch”: the nephs would be even less likely to budge if their toke was made legal.
The arguments here are socially confronting. The legislation will remove the disproportionate and life-limiting blight on people’s record of a cannabis-related conviction. It might also reduce the exploitation of those who peddle drugs for powerful criminal agencies.

But it might do little to break the chain of cannabis’ role in sapping the life out of poor communities. Habitual cannabis users do not make useful employees. Our employment picture is not just one of a skills shortage but of a chronic lack of unskilled labour. Yet the biggest thing standing between an unskilled unemployed person and a job as a labourer, fruit picker or forester may well be a cannabis habit.

Middle-class stoners vs the deprived

To socially and economically run-down communities, cannabis is a solace but also a form of prison. When middle-class recreational users trumpet their toke’s harmlessness, they’re venturing into the Marie Antoinette realm of “letting” the poor eat cake.

Those who’ve had the benefit of adequate parenting, education and diet may well be able to handle recreational drug use. For those from dysfunctional households where substance abuse is often chronic, their ability to handle it can be rather diminished.

Reform sceptics worry the proposed change would make cannabis use less stigmatising for already-privileged middle-class stoners, at the expense of the intergenerationally deprived, for whom it’s not just a fun drug but an opiate that helps cement their lives’ dead ends.

The demographics further illustrate this paradox for voters. The poorest 20 per cent of the country consume 40 per cent of the total cannabis, according to Berl’s research. Much of that use is likely to be problematic, because more than 80 per cent is consumed by people who use it most days.

Usage is highest among people of European ethnicity in their twenties and is also disproportionately high among Māori aged 15 to 20.

Pro-reformers point to booze, arguing it’s discriminatory to target cannabis when drinking, and for that matter tobacco and processed foods, are on the same harm continuum. Leading anti-alcohol campaigner Professor Doug Sellman says drinking is much more harmful than using cannabis.

However, in terms of this referendum debate, the counterfactual doesn’t exist. We’re not going to be criminalising cigarettes, grog or unhealthy food any time soon. They’ve been legal for centuries.

Modern developed societies have identified cannabis as among deleterious mind-altering substances. A rethink of that classification has been a globally growing debate for some years. It’s that distinction that’s in the spotlight here: what harm could legalisation do versus what good might come of it?

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