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Cannabis: The Referendum Going Sky High

Think back to last Saturday. You’re at a party, just you and some mates, a few drinks, some music and a bit of dancing. All of this is legal, yet the people smoking weed in the room at the back of the house is not, even though it seems to provide no more threat than a crate of beers. Rewind back to the 1960’s and you wouldn’t have people openly admitting it was them smoking, yet now most people wouldn’t bat an eye. So, what’s changed? Is legalising cannabis to be used by the everyday Joe going to be the right move? Well, the NZ Drug Foundation’s most recent poll suggests New Zealanders think it’s the right idea, yet does everyone know what needs to be put in place to make this a success?

This time last year, cannabis wasn’t legal to use in any case. As of December last year, if you are terminally ill you are able to get cannabis without a ‘high’, which can help to relieve pain. For a lot of people, this is the change they wanted and also where they wanted advancements to stop. When it comes to the 2020 referendum, however, it’s all about recreational use. This is a binding referendum, meaning if the people of Aotearoa want it, it’ll happen. But do people know what they’ll be voting for? A passing referendum only means that it will be legalised. Phil Saxby, the secretary and former president of NORML NZ, says when it comes to whether sales will be legalised, a decision is yet to be made. Nothing has been decided or even discussed formally yet surrounding sales, taxes, advertising or availability. These factors will ultimately help people to make a decision they’re happy with.

In the modern day and age, there’s a lot pointing towards a move to legalise cannabis, with countries including the Netherlands, US and Canada catching on. NZ Drug Foundation Director Ross Bell sees legalising cannabis as the right move, even if the laws around it were to be an absolute mess. Even if it becomes available at your “local corner dairy” it would be an improvement, he says. With addiction starting to be recognised as more of a health issue than a criminal one, help is wanted and needed. Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick says the enforcement of a “‘just ban the damn thing” philosophy has only ended up putting the drug more into the hands of young people.

With the right laws tying taxes to rehab services, some real changes could start to be made. This is also the perfect chance to show that the government has learnt from their mistakes with alcohol and tobacco, which are fully immersed in Kiwi culture and causing serious problems. It’s also a good chance to place stricter policies in place from the start surrounding age restrictions, strengths and advertising. This is a multi-million dollar market at our fingertips, with the ability to rapidly grow, so why not take it? Not only will it benefit Aotearoa as a whole, but it will also be “A chance to stifle income for the criminal underground,” according to Swarbrick. It seems the opportunity to benefit from legalisation is huge, even if we don’t get it all right from the beginning.

Ross Bell says the issue most New Zealanders are worried about is having it landing in the hands of their children. The brief legalisation of synthetics and the damage that this caused is the perfect example of how the government may not be ready to go ahead with this at all. While cannabis hasn’t caused any deaths in NZ, the smoking of it also doesn’t have the same negative effects as tobacco. Only one percent of users are addicted, according to NORML NZ. It does, however, have a negative effect on the mental development of those who shouldn’t be consuming it in the first place, the youth of Aotearoa. If the right policies aren’t put in place, cannabis has the potential to be marketed towards young people. Products like the vaping device Juul in the US,have been criticised for such marketing, using bright colours to attract a younger demographic. With the right education and the right, tight policies, the problem that cannabis presents is near zero, which is why people like Bell want to see it move forward.

It feels like the support behind legalising cannabis nationally and internationally has burst through the doors going from a taboo and a controversial topic to a hot one. With more and more concrete research done on medicinal cannabis, the grip around it as a taboo has been loosened, with the country coming to terms with it being more beneficial than harmful. Generations including the baby boomers, have historically been taught that cannabis is a gateway drug as part of ‘the war on drugs’. For younger generations, more reliable sources surrounding the effects of cannabis are readily available, with the myths surrounding it being quashed. According to Saxby, “There is a lot of historic information based on scare stories.”

Having talked to some of the people who are most educated in the area, the overall vibe is pretty pro cannabis. Protecting young people does, however, need to be a priority. Ultimately, time will tell, however things are looking positive, with the government overall quite supportive of the issue. We need the right policies in place, especially ones to protect vulnerable demographics, like young Māori men. Even if youth usage spikes, “It’s better for all drug use to be legalised in some form, because it can somewhat be controlled and people know what they’re taking” says Saxby. In the end it’s your decision. Chlöe Swarbrick says she’s pushing “To have a piece of legislation outlining the regulatory scheme that New Zealanders will be voting on, passed prior to the referendum itself”, which when put in place will allow the government's vision to come to fruition. In the end, reading articles such as this one and others, listening to politicians, advocates and those who oppose the issue will help you to make a decision you feel is right on a topic that was once upon a time taboo.

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