NINA HINDMARSH delves into the moral quandary of cannabis legalisation in New Zealand. Do we risk being on the wrong side of history not doing something to loosen the laws soon?
Jeanette Saxby and her daughter Jonee Saxby-Koning were driving down an isolated stretch of highway in central South Island when they saw the red and blue lights of the police car flashing behind them.
Jeanette glanced at the speedometer, which read 110kmh, and realised why she’d attracted the cop’s attention.
But of greater concern at that moment was the 12 ounces of raw cannabis flower she had just collected for one of her patients, and stashed in the back.
Her heart leapt in her chest as she slowed the car down to a stop on the side of the road. The policeman approached the open window, then he leant in, and sniffed.
“Have you been smoking?” he asked, eyebrow raised.
A 20-year veteran of cannabis law reform and medical spokesperson for the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, it wasn’t Jeanette’s first brush with the law.
She’s been a primary school teacher and drug and alcohol counsellor, as well as racking up convictions for marijuana possession over more than a decade.
Recalling that day, 20-year-old Jonee says the experience transformed her life. Last year she stood as a candidate for the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, and wears her homemade “Legalise Cannabis” T-shirts with pride.
“I feel the way the law is enforced is wrong, scare tactics and false propaganda. I wanted to run in front of a truck that day because I could see how my life was going to go down the drain,” she says, as the threat of a conviction hung over her.
She was eventually let-off with a warning, her mother pleaded guilty to possession and later sentenced to 200 hours community service.
“If I had been charged that day, it would have affected my future badly in terms of travel and job prospects. This law reform is worth fighting; I’m not a criminal and I know that,” Jonee says.
While Labour’s arrangement with the Greens promises a referendum by the 2020 election to decide whether the personal use of cannabis should be legal, pro-marijuana activists believe New Zealand is at risk of falling way behind and want the Government to act sooner.
Canada is set to become the second country in the world to legalise the consumption and sale of cannabis for personal use, after Uruguay made the move last year. California has just become the sixth US state to allow the sale of cannabis products for recreational use.
But as the effects of legalisation are starting to be felt, there are some concerning trends emerging.
A recent 2017 review outlining the impact of legalisation of cannabis in Colorado revealed an increase in cannabis-related traffic deaths and road accidents; cannabis-related emergency visits and hospitalisations; accidental cannabis poisoning in children; and an increase in cannabis use in overall population.
Perhaps the most significant benefit to the state is tax, which received $198.5 million in revenue last year from cannabis sales of $1.3 billion. The industry also added over 18,000 new full-time jobs in 2015 and spurred $2.4 billion in economic activity.
Bob McCoskrie, of Christian lobby group Family First NZ, says legalising cannabis is “the wrong path” because there are just too many health risks.
Their website, Say No to Dope, aims at informing families about the attempts and harms to legalise cannabis, and to help them speak up in the public debate. But the group supports the government’s current legislation around medicinal cannabis and any further research around non-smoked forms.
“Families simply don’t want marijuana plants being grown next door by dope dealers in view of the children, tinnie houses on street corners and pot shops in local shopping areas, or marijuana being disguised as lollies and edibles as has happened overseas,” he says.
“There is a false dichotomy that criminal sanctions apparently haven’t worked so we should ditch them all together and we should focus only on education and health initiatives.
“We should maintain both. Policing burglary, theft and the drug P also costs money – should we decriminalise these also because the ‘war on burglary’ or the ‘war on P’ is failing?”
Last month, new legislation was introduced by the Government that will allow terminal patients caught growing cannabis to use their illness as a defence to avoid prosecution. It would also include a medicinal cannabis scheme to enable access to medical grade products and remove cannabidiol from the schedule of controlled drugs. Eventually, patients with a prescription would be able to access medicinal cannabis products at a pharmacy.
A poll from the NZ Drug Foundation in August last year revealed two thirds of those surveyed want to see our cannabis laws relaxed, with 28 per cent voting for legalisation and 37 per cent for decriminalisation.
Supporters of a relaxation of laws point to another report from 2017 found that legalisation was associated with a six per cent reduction in opioid-related deaths, and other studies show a decrease in crime overall.
Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party president Steven Wilkinson believes the only way to get a fair cannabis market is to remove cannabis from the Misuse of Drugs Act, and regulate it like alcohol and tobacco.
That way, he says, it can be protected from the kids and those who need protection.
Wilkinson has been smoking since he was a teenager, stopping for nine years while his children were young. He was reintroduced to it later in life and hasn’t looked back since. Like Jeanette and her daughter, Wilkinson became an activist when he was busted at home and convicted of possession in 2004.
“For me, [cannabis] slows my really busy mind down so I can do art, relax or I can just enjoy the day,” he says.
“My motivation to push for a regulated and legal market is because I want to go to a shop in my town and look at different types of cannabis, choose a bit of this, choose a bit of that, and smoke it at my leisure without feeling like a criminal. That’s all I want.”
Hemp grower Andrew Earle says legalisation would be a “hugely positive move” for the economy. He grows an acre of hemp in Golden Bay.
It would create thousands of jobs, strengthen communities and provide opportunities for farmers to work in more ethical and sustainable ways.
He says hemp has about 50,000 uses. Farmers could be producing highly nutritious food sources, medicines, hemp paper, textiles, fibres, building materials such as hempcrete, biofuel and even super batteries.
The Government’s plan to legalise hemp seed at the end of the year is “exciting”, says Earle. Not only will people be able to consume the seed as a food source, but it will also be possible to process the stalks.
“As soon as it’s legalised, people will be buying it by the tonne. Then it will be an opportunity for farmers to consider and bank on getting a reasonably good return per hectare, and at the same time its really good for their land because it’s a really good smother plant and reduces the need for sprays.”
While many are excited about the upcoming referendum, others will be aggressively campaigning against any attempts to legalise cannabis for recreational purposes.
Otago University emeritus professor David Fergusson says the legalisation debate has “fish hooks”.
The pro-cannabis users claim it’s a safe drug, while traditional critics say it’s dangerous.
The truth, he says, lies in between the two.
One study looked at cannabis use among regular users, and found that those who began using the drug at earlier ages had an increased risk of a range of adverse outcomes, including lower levels of educational attainment; welfare dependence and unemployment; using more dangerous illicit drugs; and psychotic symptomatology.
However, the same study also found that over 40 per cent of regular adult users do not experience harmful consequences as a result of cannabis use.
“There are many people who are convinced that cannabis is harmless and has strong medical benefits; the actual evidence says cannabis is not harmless and that there are modest benefits.”
He says those who advocate this position should look closely at Colorado for clues.
“It shows that as you would expect, legalising cannabis use increases use and consequently increases harm.”
Fergusson believes it’s not an issue that can be solved by a referendum, but a carefully planned policy framework, before exposing it to public scrutiny.
He suggests starting at depenalisation and loosening the laws very slowly, while looking closely at the benefits and harms before considering legalisation. He says prohibition hasn’t worked, but an evidence-based process should determine policy changes, rather than sentiment.
But to thousands of others around the country, there’s no such moral quandary.
Cannabis grows with sun and water, says Jeanette Saxby, from her Paeroa home.
“To me, to talk about marijuana being medical or recreational is really splitting hairs. Keeping it illegal is criminal.”
Jeanette, who has completed a post-graduate diploma on cannabis use in New Zealand through Canterbury University, believes the Government needs to act fast to keep pace.
She has a large case load of clients who she advises how to reduce their methadone or opiate intake by substituting cannabis products.
She says most people who smoke cannabis won’t admit it, and that users are typically “far more ordinary” than we think.
She says smoking isn’t necessarily medicinal, because you’re getting high.
“If you want to medicate, you need to consume it as a balm or an edible, or a therapeutic product. Smoking to me is fun, it’s like cracking a beer or pouring a wine.”
But Jeanette says it’s hard to distinguish between “medicinal” and “recreational”, because all people use cannabis to feel better.
People get into habits: cigarettes, alcohol or pot, and all need to be used in moderation, she says.