Taking issue: What do we need to think about as we approach the 2020 Cannabis Referendum?

Opinion: Three University of Auckland academics give us a steer on what to think about ahead of the cannabis referendum.

Unreliable mechanism for policy issues

Dr Matheson Russell

Received wisdom treats referenda as the gold standard in democratic decisionmaking. But this piece of received wisdom is dubious. Referenda are not a reliable mechanism for resolving complex and contentious policy questions (witness Brexit) and, despite what is often claimed, they don’t tell us much about ‘the will of the people’.

For example, many people won’t have strong views about the pros and cons of legalising personal cannabis use. Yet the 2020 referendum will elicit from us a preference, tentative though it may be, and will weigh our preference the same as everyone else’s. Even if we do have firm views about the issue, chances are these views will not have been formed on the basis of an independent assessment of the relevant evidence and arguments, but by relying on shortcuts. We will have followed the lead of trusted voices in our social networks or made judgments based on fragmentary information or misinformation picked up through the media.

For the few who do the hard work to develop an informed view on the issue, the referendum will misrepresent our views by forcing us to express a yes/no response to a predetermined proposal. A moment’s scrutiny and the aura of unquestionable democratic authority surrounding referenda vanishes.

There are more promising democratic processes that can be used if legislators require a more solid democratic mandate. In 2016, the Irish government commissioned 99 ordinary citizens, broadly representative of the diverse Irish population, to consider the contentious issue of abortion law reform. This Citizens’ Assembly interviewed experts, heard first-hand testimony, weighed medical, moral and legal considerations, deliberated together and finally drafted a set of recommendations. Irish citizens were able to see people like themselves conscientiously working through a matter of complexity and gravity. Politicians were impressed by the rigour of the process and the quality of the recommendations.

Ultimately, the Citizens’ Assembly was instrumental in moving Ireland forward on a deadlocked issue, and abortion laws were successfully liberalised through a constitutional amendment in 2018.

As we head to the polls, we should resist the temptation to treat the cannabis referendum as a divine oracle. Take a moment to imagine how new modes of democratic participation could both improve the quality of political decisionmaking and deepen our democracy.

Dr Matheson Russell is a senior lecturer in Philosophy who specialises in social and political philosophy, Faculty of Arts.

Chance to partner with Māori

Dr Lara Greaves

The process may not be perfect, but this may be our only chance for a generation to change a discriminatory law. While we don’t know the exact wording of the legislation we will vote on, we know that the current prohibition arrangement disproportionately impacts Māori. Māori are only slightly more likely to use cannabis than others – but are considerably more likely to face prosecution.

Given efforts in the eradication of cannabis crops, particularly in the economically deprived regional expanses of Northland and the East Coast, it is Māori who appear to be taking the risk growing the cannabis that students pass around their Grey Lynn flat with little fear.

Legalisation of cannabis presents an opportunity to partner with Māori and those with, shall we say, the necessary horticultural skills. These people also have existing networks and a customer base, and despite cannabis being illegal, are earning an income.

It is those same people and their families who stand to lose out if cannabis is legalised. Part of building equity into cannabis law reform will involve bringing in those operating outside the current law, to a place where they are able to operate effectively within it. The Helen Clark Foundation proposed expunging cannabis convictions so people can work in the legal market. But how will they access the resources necessary for licensing and compete with wellfunded start-ups? If commercial licences are restricted in number, then one way to partner with Māori would be reserved licences. The flow-on effects could allow for kaupapa Māori education around cannabis use.

Ultimately, the process has not been perfect, but if cannabis isn’t legalised in 2020, it is likely that these inequalities will continue. We are now stuck in cycles of successive Labour or National-led governments. Labour will not have the mandate to legalise cannabis if the referendum fails this cycle, and it’s unlikely that the next National government would take the lead on legalising recreational cannabis. In the meantime, there’s likely to be a trickle of liberalisation until we eventually get there, all while thousands face prosecution.

Dr Lara Greaves (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kuri) is a lecturer in Politics and International Relations, specialising in NZ Politics, Faculty of Arts.  

Better Safeguarding The Young And Vulnerable

Professor Benedikt Fischer

About a quarter of our population is under 18, so parents need to be well informed about the implications for and against cannabis legalisation.

Most cannabis use occurs in those aged 15-29. More than half have tried it and as many as a third may be active users. People don’t want to see youngsters experience cannabis-related harm, so parents may be hesitant to support policy changes that – even subjectively – suggest any increase in risk. But it is erroneous to think that the referendum is a vote for, or against, the availability and use of cannabis. Cannabis is already widely available and used, albeit illegally. Rather, the referendum is about whether to bring illegal cannabis use and supply into a realm of legality, with overarching public health goals to regulate key details, to keep those who use it safer and so to protect young people’s wellbeing.

While cannabis use results in less severe health harm overall than alcohol or tobacco, it comes with risks such as cognitive or mental impairment, injury or death from cannabis-impaired driving, educational attainment problems and dependence.

But science has demonstrated consistently that these are largely limited to those who begin cannabis use early in life, use intensively (daily) as well as consume high-potency (high-THC) cannabis products.

Today’s cannabis products are unregulated and of uncertain properties. Most procurement involves an illegal transaction from questionable sources and no teacher or health professional can legally give advice on how to use cannabis more safely. Furthermore, prohibition’s consequences mean any young person – but especially the socio-economically marginalised – may become entangled in the criminal justice system as a result of cannabis use, bringing potentially more harm to their life than having a joint.

Extensive work is required to appropriately communicate the rationale and reasons of any cannabis legalisation plan. While legalisation continues to be an informed ‘social experiment’, we can reasonably expect improved safeguarding of vulnerable young people through a legal, limited cannabis supply regulated for availability and potency, fact-based cannabis education including safer use advice, and removal of arbitrary criminalisation practices. Legalisation mutes the powers of law enforcement on what is really a health and education issue, however the proposed age limit of 20 for use means many young users will be excluded from its prospective benefits. ‘Homecultivation’ of cannabis is a misguided concept in a ‘public health’ framework. Cannabis production does not belong in people’s – and especially non-users’ – living environments.

Professor Benedikt Fischer is the Hugh Green Foundation Chair in Addiction Research, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.  

The writers' views reflect personal opinion and may not be those of the University of Auckland.

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