Call for coherent policy approach for tobacco, alcohol and cannabis

The upcoming cannabis referendum could be the first step to an evidence-based approach to policy for the psychoactive drugs New Zealanders consume the most.

Cannabis plants
Cannabis referendum the opportunity for consistent and evidence based policy for society's most consumer psychoactive drugs.

The upcoming referendum on cannabis may generally align the status of cannabis with that of other legal drugs. Yet, Professor Benedikt Fischer, an expert on psychoactive substance policy, and co-authors, suggest that New Zealand should go further and develop a more coherent, integrated and evidence-based approach to cannabis, alcohol and tobacco.

This is the main message from Professor Fischer and co-authors in a commentary published in Drug and Alcohol Review this week.

The commentary argues the potential and actual harm caused by all three substances could be better reduced with policies more consistently based on scientific evidence and with the health of the population top of mind.

The authors note several, substantial inconsistencies – assuming cannabis becomes legal - in how the three most commonly used psychoactive substances are to be regulated for sale and use. An example of the inconsistency is the proposal that cannabis use be restricted to private homes (or rare, designated cannabis use premise yet to be defined).

“There have been longstanding efforts to move tobacco smoking out of homes to reduce the hazard to children and non-smokers. Unlike tobacco, which can be smoked in most public spaces, the use of cannabis in public is disallowed.”

The cannabis referendum proposes a minimum use age of 20, when it is 18 for alcohol and tobacco sales. Cannabis will only be available from ‘licensed retail premises’ whereas alcohol and tobacco can be bought at general retail facilities, including supermarkets.

“All three substances can cause substantial, yet differential harm and their regulation and use should be based on a consistent, science-informed and health-focused approach,” he says.

This would enable New Zealand to have a more proportionate and coherent approach to regulating, and educating people about the use of tobacco, alcohol and cannabis, monitoring and for providing appropriate interventions to address the risks for acute and long-term harm to users and others.

Professor Fischer envisages a possible government-controlled distribution system for all non-medical psychoactive substances. “An aim would be to prevent commercial interests from undermining public health objectives regarding sales, marketing, and ensuring consumers were provided evidence-based information about the risks and effects of use, and co-use of each of the substances.

Media contact

Gilbert Wong,  021917 942