It’s not about the pros and cons of cannabis — it’s about the pros and cons of prohibition.

It would be easy to imagine the New Zealand cannabis referendum hinges on whether or not we think cannabis should be introduced to New Zealand, but this would be so misguided.

Cannabis is already widely available and used in New Zealand. Indeed, data from the Christchurch longitudinal study indicates 80% of Kiwis have used cannabis under the current regime of prohibition, criminalisation and strict law enforcement.

The latest World Drug Report from the UNODC indicates that despite tough law enforcement, globally the demand, and indeed the supply of illicit drugs, has not reduced. To the contrary, both the supply and demand for illicit drugs have gradually been increasing.

While prohibition has little impact on levels of cannabis use, interestingly, countries that have legalised or decriminalised cannabis have not witnessed any significant change or increase in levels of cannabis use either.

This graph from the highly respected EMCDDA shows lifetime cannabis use across Europe among young adults. It is worth noting that in 1976 the Netherlands made it legal to sell cannabis in Amsterdam coffee shops, while in 2001, Portugal decriminalised all personal possession of banned drugs. Neither the Netherlands or Portugal has witnessed excessive levels of cannabis use among young people, and both countries boast lower levels of addiction and problematic drug use compared to other European countries.

What seems clear is that prohibitionist or indeed liberal drug policy does not have any significant impact upon levels of drug use. So we are fooling ourselves if we think the Cannabis Referendum is about introducing, reducing or expanding cannabis use. What policy should be focused on is reducing associated harms.

So if prohibition or legal regulation is not going to have much impact on levels of use the New Zealand referendum has little to do with cannabis use, it is not about the pros and cons of cannabis, it’s all about the pros and cons of prohibition enforcement. Does prohibition reduce or increase harm for people who use cannabis?

It is important therefore that we spend less time endlessly debating the risks or benefits of cannabis (which will continue regardless of whether we vote yes or no), and more time understanding and exploring the consequences of prohibition.

So whether you vote YES or NO it’s unlikely to reduce or increase cannabis use in New Zealand. But whether you vote yes or no will have a significant impact upon drug policy related harms in New Zealand. The question we face then is whether criminalising cannabis reduces or increases harm, so it’s important we understand the issues and assess the evidence.

We know from research that prohibition has little control on overall levels of supply or demand, but it does have considerable unintended negative outcomes elsewhere.

As a result of driving cannabis underground, prohibition means the person:

1. Has no idea of the THC/CBD strength of the drug.

2. Has no guarantee about the purity or indeed content of the cannabis purchased — it could be contaminated or even mixed with toxic ingredients that could cause serious harm, even death.

3. Has to buy cannabis ‘underground’ — exposing the person to the vagaries of a potentially dangerous criminal underworld with no legal recourse for consumer protection.

4. Is placed at risk of acquiring a criminal record for cannabis possession — which would have lifelong damaging consequences upon employment prospects, education, insurance, travel and housing.

5. Buying, using and/or sharing cannabis puts the person at risk of serious criminal sentences such as a Drug Court order with a residential rehabilitation requirement, random drug testing — even imprisonment.

6. Cannabis has to be used in secret. For some people this may mean using in an isolated location which could be potentially dangerous especially — such as a condemned building, under a railway bridge, by a river etc.

7. Has to hide their use of cannabis making it more difficult to manage and harder to seek help, support or advice if problems arise.

8. If the person has a life-limiting medical condition that’s untreatable and can’t afford and/or can’t access expensive legal medical cannabis — trying to acquire a regular reliable supply underground places further strain and pressure upon the sick person.

9. Enforcement cannabis laws unfairly target poor people, young people and Māori — and once a young person who is already disadvantaged gets a criminal record for drugs — opportunities become severely limited.

10. Using valuable police time to scour the countryside to dig up plants, stop and search people, carry out dawn raids, — time that could be better spent catching criminals and protecting victims from physical/sexual violence, trespass, theft and burglary.

11. Prohibition enforcement fuels an extremely lucrative underground illegal market where disputes and turf wars can’t get resolved by arbitration, consumer rights or the courts — disputes get resolved by violence, knives, baseball bats and guns.

12. Cannabis is already used widely, but the entire market from seeds, growing, the equipment, the preparation, marketing, packaging and profit is entirely unregulated, unaccountable, underground and undeclared — this existing lucrative underground business is losing the country millions of dollars in tax revenue and employment opportunities.

I have worked with drug addiction, I have seen, researched, written and addressed drug policy and drug addiction issues for over four decades. I’ve been an expert advisor to the UNODC. I’ve never used illegal drugs, I have no bias or personal agenda on this issue, but I remain passionate to reduce drug policy related harm.

From my research, knowledge and experience in the drug field I conclude there is little to support cannabis prohibition, similarly there was little to support alcohol prohibition. Prohibition is a disaster. Responsible legal regulation offers the best chance to reduce harm from drugs and drug policy related harms:

Prohibition emanates from a global drug war that was promoted by the UN in 1961 with the single convention of narcotic drugs. Like a number of post war policies that evolved from the 1950s (in respect of women, homosexuality, indigenous people, mental health, suicide and disabilities) prohibition is a policy rooted in prejudice, propaganda and misinformation — It certainly is not based upon scientific evidence.

Thankfully, most of the draconian ill-conceived 1950s laws controlling these other groups have long since been overturned. However, drug prohibition in New Zealand was enshrined in the NZ Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 remains firmly in place, but now we have an opportunity to change the law in respect of cannabis — albeit almost 50 years later.

Be on the right side of history. Do what is right and vote YES. You are not voting pro cannabis use, but you’ll be voting YES to end the draconian and damaging system of cannabis prohibition.

Dr Julian Buchanan CPA, DipSW, MA, PhD

6th October 2020

Retired Professor, international expert in drug policy, researcher, public speaker, writer and ex UN advisor.