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Proposed cannabis legalisation - I’m still not convinced…

Opinion article contributed by Bronwynne Howse

On September 19, we don’t only find out who will govern our country for the next three years we also potentially start the process to legalise the recreational use of cannabis.

As I understand it, if New Zealand chooses YES in the upcoming referendum, anyone aged over 20 will be able to produce, sell, buy, and consume cannabis recreationally without fear of conviction or retribution, unless of course they’re caught selling to someone under the age of 20.

I was recently asked whether I would be supporting the legalisation of cannabis. My answer was an emphatic no, but at the time I couldn’t qualify this answer with anything other than I am a mum of two teenagers and a tween who I don’t want using the excuse ‘but mum its legal’ to start smoking cannabis and potentially develop an addiction to a harmful drug.

While this might come across as old-fashioned and idealistic, as a parent I believe it’s my duty to support my children to make responsible decisions about drug use. While I’m not naïve enough to think ‘it won’t happen to us’, (and hopefully it won’t) if the word ‘illegal’ helps reinforce what we’ve been saying as parents and gets not just my own children but others aswell to second guess what they might do before starting down what could be a slippery slope, then yes, I’m absolutely anti legalisation.

To examine my own thinking and my potentially ignorant perspective, I decided to find out a bit more about why we would want to legalise it and also ask others what their views were.

The purpose of the proposed legislation, as I’ve now found out, is to reduce harm to people and communities. According to the Referendums website, making the drug legal will:

  • eliminate any illegal supply,

  • enable authorities to highlight the health risks,

  • restrict the use by young people,

  • limit the public visibility of the drug,

  • improve access to support such as health and social services, and

  • make sure the response to any breach of the law is fair.

While I’m 100% supportive of reducing harm, reading this list still doesn’t convince me that legalisation is the right answer.

Firstly, I’m not sure why we need legalisation to highlight the health risks and improve access to support services. Surely we can be doing this work without legalising a drug?

Secondly, I'm somewhat sceptical about the claim that legalisation will restrict the use by young people . Do we really believe that taking the word illegal away for some people, but not all, will restrict use by younger kids? I’m aware that research exists and although I haven't read it I'm sure it will support both arguments. But I fall back on my lived experience with teenagers which is that they’ll push boundaries and find ways to flout rules.

If legalised, the rule will be only people over the age of 20 can partake in buying, using, selling and producing cannabis which means it’s illegal for everyone under 20. But why would partial legality reduce use by those under-age? Our teenagers think along the lines of "if it's legal for some people, then it must be OK so it won't hurt". It's happened with vaping, so I’m not sure why we think legalising cannabis for certain age groups and crossing our fingers that other younger members of our society won't partake, will be any different.

I also find the claim that making cannabis legal will limit public visibility of the drug a little ironic. How do we hide the drug from public view when it’s going to be legal for a person to possess up to 14grams of dried cannabis in a public place? While cannabis can’t be consumed in a public place, there’s nothing stopping people from having their 14gms on display while they’re having a coffee at the local café.

One person I spoke to told me cannabis isn’t necessarily a gateway drug and that just because someone starts smoking weed, they’re not necessarily going to try P or heroin or something else. Point taken, but I it’s still an addictive drug which can be very harmful to those who use.

Another person I spoke to believed alcohol is actually more dangerous. I have no answer to that other than to say that just because we’ve legalised alcohol, doesn’t mean we should legalise cannabis. Maybe we should learn from the lessons history has taught us.

Then there’s people who bring up the health argument and how some people need it to relieve their pain. I don’t disagree, but we’re not being asked to vote on this because medicinal use is already legal.

How do we feel about people driving under the influence of cannabis? Like alcohol, drug driving while high is illegal. From everything I’ve read, cannabis causes impairment which means cars and cannabis don’t mix. According to the Ministry of Transport since 2013, the number of road deaths in New Zealand has increased by nearly 50 percent. Drug driving is making an increasing contribution to this statistic. While there is a proposal to introduce a new compulsory roadside testing scheme for drugs, this won't catch everyone. So this means to make our roads safe we’re going to be reliant on people making a rationale judgment on whether they’re OK to drive while their brain is impaired from smoking cannabis. To be honest, this doesn’t instil a huge amount of confidence.

Maybe I'm missing something but when I ask myself whether I’ll be supporting the referendum, the answer is still no – I’m not convinced legalising cannabis is the answer and I fear for the health and wellbeing of our young people and our communities if we were to make it legal.

Decriminalisation yes, but legalisation no.



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