October 12, 2020
When experts have opposing opinions on an important issue it becomes very hard for lay-people to make an informed decision. Juries are faced with that dilemma in court with prosecution and defence lawyers attempting to persuade lay-people that their arguments are right and the other side wrong. Jury members however have a judge to guide them through the complex intricacies of the law. Unfortunately, the general public has no one to take that role in the upcoming referendum on the recreational use of cannabis, in association with the general election.
Some of those who work with drug addicts have given very different advice about the potential for legalisation to reduce harm. A number of medical professionals have also given opposing opinions on the subject.
We need first to make a very clear distinction between medicines derived from cannabis and recreational cannabis. While both plants belong to the same family, they are very different in chemical composition.
Cannabis based pharmaceuticals can be obtained on prescription from a doctor in much the same way as any other drug for the treatment of illness. They won’t make people “high” and few doctors so far seem willing to prescribe them preferring other medications for their patients.
Recreational cannabis on the other hand is taken for no other purpose than the high it gives. It has no medical benefit regardless of the claims by many users. In recent times very potent strains of cannabis have appeared on the established illegal market with some nasty results for users.
The key objective of the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control bill, is to reduce cannabis-related harm and the New Zealand Drug Foundation has assured the public that protecting young and vulnerable people is at the heart of the proposed law change.
The new law would restrict purchase to people over 20 with a daily limit of 14 grams. Home cultivation would be limited to two plants per person or four per household, only licensed stores would be allowed to sell it and there would be no advertising.
No one is sure however that the bill, if it becomes law, will achieve any of those objectives. People could buy their 14 grams from several different shops and who is going to count plants in the garden? The only thing experts do seem to agree on is that recreational cannabis is harmful to at least some of the people who use it with one expert in addiction, saying there was no doubt cannabis could cause harm.
Some of those in favour of the bill have said legalisation would avoid the current high level of criminal conviction, but we could say that about many other offences. There would be no speeding fines if there was no speed limit and no parking fines if we did not have metres and traffic wardens.
Proponents have also claimed that legalisation would significantly reduce the current illegal market, operated predominantly by gangs. Unless there is an unrestricted legal market there will always be an illegal market. Given the strict, if unenforceable, proposed regulations, there will always sellers targeting underage users with dangerous highly potent cannabis.
Proponents have also said there are two legal drugs already in New Zealand, alcohol and tobacco, which are far worse than cannabis. They are probably correct, but does having two dangerous substances really justify having a third?
Of those opposing the bill many are teachers, some of whom have seen at first hand the debilitating effect of cannabis on young people. Too many have seen bright and intelligent students lose all ambition and leave school at an early age with no career prospects after starting to use cannabis. But what about individual responsibility? There will be few secondary students today who do not know the potential harmful effects of smoking dope. Too many make the wrong choice and become a burden on society rather than contributing to it. There are also people who use cannabis on a regular basis, including many career professionals, without any obvious harmful effects. Should they be denied what they see as harmless enjoyment because a few kids make stupid choices?
One issue which has not been discussed so far is the effect on unemployment figures. Many industries have a strict no drugs policy. That is nothing to do with legality but a safety measure to ensure there is no impairment in the workplace. If we legalise cannabis how many more users will become unemployable?
In effect we are being asked to approve something which is potentially harmful to at least some vulnerable people so that others can get high. Given that there are so many other ways for people to enjoy themselves, legalising cannabis is probably not a good idea.