• Richard Prosser

Recreational cannabis in New Zealand - to legalise or not?

Updated: Sep 8, 2019

As the world moves further along the road to legalised medicinal and recreational cannabis, and the associated renaissance of industrial hemp, New Zealand appears to be lagging behind.

The present administration favours an approach that begins from a position of very tight regulation. I don’t believe this is either sensible or sustainable; and I believe that such an approach has been shown to be counterproductive, in such jurisdictions as have attempted it thus far.

I will explain my thinking.

1. Cannabis is currently illegal in New Zealand. It is illegal to grow it, to possess it, to sell it, to consume it. And yet it is commonly used and readily available. This tells us that a) the market is already completely regulated, and b) people are completely ignoring that regulation. So starting from a point of very tight regulation is not going to work. How do we know this? Because it isn’t working now.

2. The biggest sticking point preventing a proper, open, objective, realistic conversation about cannabis in New Zealand is the attitude of conservative politicians, and by that I mean MPs from National, Labour, and NZ First. Almost universally, these people live under the mistaken belief that the majority of ordinary middle New Zealanders are fundamentally and conservatively opposed to cannabis and its use by ordinary people. This is not the case; these politicians are simply out of touch, and those who are not out of touch, are unwilling to say so, because their various Leaders are not willing to risk what they mistakenly believe will be the ire of the very Middle New Zealand whom they have misunderstood, by voicing such a position.

Grey Power branches are among those calling for the decriminalisation of cannabis for medical purposes – and a more truly conservative demographic I would challenge anyone to name.

3. The debate thus far has been driven by extremists.

There are Green extremists, who are simply stoners who want their drug of choice legalised. Fair enough, but they need to just say so. Humanity has sought mood- and mind-altering experiences since time immemorial. Almost all societies have found them. After all - why do people consume alcohol?

There are Control Freak extremists, who believe themselves to be far better equipped to decide what others do and don't do, and what others do and don't put into their bodies, than those people themselves. These people generally resort to spurious arguments such as their professed concern for the mental and physical health of society and the individuals who comprise it, the dangers posed by stoned drivers, etc etc etc. They talk about the drain on the Health system. OK, so how about if someone has private health insurance, or is independently wealthy, and chooses to be a stoner? No, they’ll still oppose it, which gives the lie to their professed motivation.

There are Religious extremists, who appear to just not want anyone to have any fun. Apparently the Creator gifted us the Earth, but doesn't want us to enjoy life on it. No, life should be hard, punishing, and unpleasant. Happiness is to be frowned upon, according to these grumpy pious malcontents.

Does this mean their opinions should be ignored? No, this is a democracy, and every individual’s opinion is worth as much as that of the next person. But here’s the thing – it isn’t worth more than that of the next person.

There are Coal Face extremists such as Social Workers, and some in the Police and the Health sector, on whom we all depend, but whose view is clouded by the reality that all they ever see is the very worst end of the debate. They see lives destroyed and minds addled – and yes, those things do happen. I’m not about to pretend that they don’t. What they don't see is that a) this end of the spectrum is very much a tiny proportion of the whole, or b) those people so affected are also negatively affected by a massive slew of other problems, and would be suffering the same ills whether they were exposed to cannabis or not. There won’t just be pot. There will be methamphetamine, and gangs, and unregistered mongrel dogs, and domestic abuse, and alcohol abuse, and neglect, and incest, and untreated illnesses, and heavy tobacco smoking, and junk food, and poor sanitation, and lack of achievement at school, and so on ad infinitum. Cannabis, in and of itself, is a minor symptom in these cases, not a major cause.

I have no doubts whatsoever that Dr Lance O’Sullivan, and others of his ilk, are incredibly intelligent, knowledgeable, committed, caring, and deeply and genuinely concerned about the welfare of those with whom they deal. But I am equally certain that their viewpoint is artificially narrow and does not in any way represent balance within the wider debate. Does that mean they should be disregarded? No, but it does mean that their views should be taken within an appreciation of the greater perspective.

What they don't see is that there is a world of difference between a professional couple, or a tradie, or a process worker, or a cop, sharing a joint with friends on a Friday night, and a 14-year-old from the third generation of an unemployed beneficiary family, lighting up his or her fourth doobie of the day at nine o'clock on a Tuesday morning. They don't see that difference because the 14-year-old is the only exposure they have to the substance and its use, or at the very least, comprises a disproportionate measure of their overall experience of the use and effects of the substance.

The other side of the coin is that cannabis is a very common, very mainstream substance that is used recreationally, in varying degrees of frequency, by around a third of New Zealanders from every strata of society. MPs, lawyers, Judges, doctors, accountants, engineers, company directors, media personalities, military personnel, sports people, celebrities, Police Officers, Prison Officers, airline pilots, you name it - they are all represented among the ranks of recreational cannabis users. Some are daily users, while others might only indulge once or twice a month. Plenty will admit to this in the right private company; almost none will say so in public. While this situation continues, we won't have a proper or even useful national debate around the matter.

There are the Doomsday extremists, who cover an amalgam of objections that overlap a fair chunk of the territory claimed by the Controllists, the God-talkers, and the Clean-up people. Cannabis is a gateway drug, according to them. It’s so much stronger than it used to be! One toke on a number, and you’ll be shooting up meth. Dope turns mild-mannered reporters into raging super-human axe-murderers. People will hurtle around in cars stoned out of their minds causing carnage and mayhem. There’s more tar going into your lungs from one cone, than from a carton of Camel non-filter! Etc etc. None of it actually happens in real life, of course, and, more often than not, reality is in fact diametrically opposed to such claims.

Yes, modern purpose-bred strains of recreational cannabis have a much higher THC content than was the case fifty years ago. But that doesn’t mean people are getting more wasted – merely that they need to consume less of it, in order to get as wasted as they desire to be.

And for centuries, and longer, much of the cannabis consumed for recreational purposes in the parts of the world where it has been traditional, has been in the form of hashish, which is no stronger today than it has ever been.

The potential for harm from the consumption of cannabis, as with the potential for harm from the consumption of alcohol, and many other things, is largely a product of quantity, compounded by age and other relative factors. Moderation in all things is generally a better idea than excess. Breathing too much oxygen will kill you, as will drinking too much water.

Disregarding for a moment the relative downsides of either substance, alcohol provides a very relevant template for the consideration of the legal status of cannabis.

For example:

Alcohol is a legal substance. It is legal to manufacture it, to sell it, to consume it, to be under the influence of it.

But it comes with rules; you can't sell it without the appropriate licence, you can't drive or operate machinery whilst under its influence, you can't supply it to people below a certain age. There are times and places where it may and may not be consumed. All these are sensible and necessary approaches.

People can make their own. As much as they like, and as strong as they like. But most people don’t bother – and so it would be with legalised cannabis. An individual in New Zealand can perfectly legally brew a swimming pool full of beer, or distill a bathtub worth of vodka, and consume it, every week, without any form of licence, permit, or registration with the State, and the State won’t bat an eyelid. But sell a bottle to your mate, or give a glass to the kid next door, and the full weight of the law will be down upon you, and rightly so.

And alcohol, legally produced, legally traded, legally bought and sold and consumed, is a huge industry. It provides literally tens of thousands of jobs across the brewing, winemaking, spirits, hospitality, and tourism sectors. It is big business, legitimate business, and good business.

And yes, people do abuse it. Used wrongly, alcohol is massively destructive. It destroys lives, relationships, careers. Drunk drivers kill and maim. Most late-night violence has alcohol splashed all over it. If the stuff was invented tomorrow it would be completely banned the day after, and everyone knows it.

But most people, most of the time, mostly don’t have problems with or because of alcohol. Most who imbibe, enjoy doing so, and do so responsibly, without causing or suffering harm.

People do still operate outside the law where alcohol is concerned. Pretty much every suburb in New Zealand has at least one person selling bootleg spirits. Every now and then someone gets caught, and suffers the consequences; and that will be replicated – or rather, continue to be replicated - when cannabis is decriminalised. After all, that’s the way things work now – why would anyone think it might change?

This takes us back to the beginning. Starting the process of cannabis law reform from a position of very tight regulation, which can be relaxed in stages as decided, is not a step forward. It is not a step to anywhere. It is precisely where we are now, and where we have been for sixty-odd years, and it hasn’t worked.

Laws have to reflect the prevailing mood of the nation to which they are being applied. If they don’t, people simply ignore them. Lowering the alcohol purchasing age from 20 to 18 was an unwise move in my view, because in New Zealand’s national psyche, such prescribed limits are really only a guide. When the age was 20, 18 was the defacto. But lowering the age to 18, motivated by ideology alone, meant that the defacto age dropped to 16, where it remains.

And so suggestions that legalised cannabis be available only to those aged 18 or above won’t achieve the desired aim; but then right now, there is no age limit at all, because the stuff is universally illegal. Making it legal for people over the age of 18 will change nothing at all in that regard. Kids will still supply other kids. They’re doing that now – it’s not like the stuff is hard to obtain. However, the good news is that in every jurisdiction to have liberalised drug laws thus far, not only abuse rates, but overall use rates, particularly amongst the young, have fallen. It seems that taking away the illegality also takes away some of the excitement and appeal (as well as the gangs, the money, and the crime). This is no bad thing.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t impose an age limit – only that we shouldn’t expect that doing so will achieve anything. Having one does, however, allow the authorities a reason to intervene when intervention is necessary, such as in the case of the aforementioned 14-year-old.

Recreational use raises a second set of questions, and I come back to my point about alcohol with reference to the Green extremists. Why do people drink it? If you’re thirsty, water will suffice. No, we drink alcohol because it makes us feel good. It causes a release of dopamine in the brain, like any drug.

Personally I need a kickstart in the mornings, and coffee is what I reach for. It’s a stimulant. Caffeine fires up the CNS. I’m grumpy without it. Is it a mood-altering substance? Damned right it is. Is it mind-altering? Actually I believe that’s a matter of degree.

Alcohol at moderate dose rates acts as a stimulant, a tonic even. At higher rates it becomes a depressant. At some point, it crosses over from being a mood-altering substance, to being a mind-altering substance. At that point, judgement may be affected, performance impaired, and behavioural stability compromised. Should people be allowed to consume it at all?

Some would argue no. Most of us say yes, and the naysayers can bog off. But that majority of us also accept that some constraints are required around it, hence we agree that at a certain level of being affected, people aren’t allowed to drive, and so on.

So society’s objection to the consumption of alcohol centres on the potential negative consequences of over-consumption for third parties, rather than on the consumption of it being pleasurable for the consumer per se.

And therein, I would posit, lies one of the bedrock objections of those who oppose the recreational use of cannabis; some people just don’t want others to enjoy stuff. But we allow the consumption and enjoyment of alcohol – and so the merry-go-round goes round. If there is a bottom line here, it is that there are people who believe humans should be permitted to consume substances that generate a dopamine release in the brain, and people who believe they shouldn’t. If you’re a shouldn’t, then you’d better be consistent about it. I want to see everyone who opposes the legalisation of recreational cannabis to also come out against alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, chocolate, cocoa generally, sugar, music, watching sports on TV, and everything else that tickles our brains’ pleasure receptors.

Actually, however, the pros and cons of this debate don’t centre on the relative merits of cannabis versus alcohol as a recreational substance, or on the benefits, or lack thereof, of cannabis as a medicinal substance. Those are discussions in their own right.

Really, it comes down to two things; firstly, whether or not people should be allowed to do stuff that is enjoyable, so long as doing so doesn’t negatively affect anyone else, and secondly, the fact of a new and burgeoning global industry centred on cannabis in its various forms and uses.

The first is a simple yay-or-nay question, and if it’s a yay – and I think it will be - that then becomes a matter of identifying suitable constraints around availability and levels of relative impairment.

The second revolves around what nations choose to do, or not do, about this new economic opportunity.

The fact is that an increasing number of jurisdictions around the world are permitting the production and use of cannabis and its various extracts, for medicinal and recreational purposes. It is potentially a highly lucrative market, and one that New Zealand is ideally placed to profit from participating in. The potential for industrial hemp is already acknowledged, and whilst not directly intertwined with the cannabis debate, it is closely linked. As with the fledgling world cannabis trade, hemp is a market that NZ is also well-placed to profit from, and also on the cusp of missing the boat over. Other countries will supply the demand if we don’t, and they will do so swiftly. It is already happening in some places. Dope and hemp are going to be worth billions upon billions, and they are about to pass us by.

Dithering around the subject because of unfounded concerns about non-existent objections from people and demographics whose opinions have not actually been sought is plain foolish, and actually irresponsible on the part of our lawmakers. To them I say, get off the fence. You’ll never please everybody, so don’t mess things up by trying to.

Some quotes from some of our representatives, in a recent newspaper article, give an indication as to how divorced from reality the thinking is, amongst some within the Halls of Power:

"It's just common sense to start at a more conservative, regulated market. Once you have no regulation, the horse has bolted and there's no coming back."

-       Right now, cannabis is completely illegal. How much more regulated can you get? In order for the horse to bolt, it has to be in the stable to begin with. Well, it’s long gone already – how do you propose to get it back, so you can make a start?

"How do you limit youth access when you allow people to grow it in their own home, and how do you police home-grown when people do that now already?"

-       My point entirely.

“He also supported a regulated, non-profit model with smaller community providers rather than "coca-cola type" suppliers.”

-       Oh yes, that’s really going to happen. Peace, love, and moong beans, everyone. No-one will buy or sell anymore. They’ll just grow and supply for free out of sheer altruism. And the lion will lie down with the lamb. Tra-la-la-la-la……in fact, Dopa-Cola Inc will provide a reliable supply for those domestic private consumers who can’t guarantee that their mate Fred will always have some dak when they’re looking for it. Homegrown will continue to supply the rest. Dopa-Cola Inc will however displace whichever local Motorcycle Enthusiasts’ Club currently supplies this market demand.

"We have to learn the lessons from tobacco and alcohol policy. We're now spending the last 20 years trying to tighten those markets.

-       Actually you’ve spent about the last 50 years ignoring the best advice and bending over to corporate interests. Now would be a good time to start listening, and putting the people and the nation first.

"But [he] said any controls had to consider whether they would create a legal vacuum that the black market could fill; an age limit of 25 and banning highly potent products, for example, could lead to criminals meeting that consumer demand."

-       A legal vacuum that the black market could fill? You mean a black market like the one that exists now? Criminals meeting consumer demand? Um – hellooooooo – you’re describing the status quo…..

"That could translate to a government monopoly on supply and a national register for all users (Uruguay), a ban on home cultivation and public consumption (Washington state), "

-       Seriously??

-       A Government monopoly on supply? Nooo, I think people will ignore that one.

-       A national register for all users? Nooo, people will ignore that one as well.

-       A ban on home cultivation – like we have now? Yeah, that’s working really well, eh. Remind me, why are we having this debate at all? Oh yeah, that’s right – it’s because the stuff is illegal, but people are growing it and using it anyway. So yeah. A ban on home cultivation. Brilliant idea. Good luck with that.

-       A ban on public consumption? See above.

"[He] was reluctant to detail what "maximum control" might look like, but suggested that the alcohol industry was the horse that bolted and "we're not going to repeat the mistakes of the past".

-       With the greatest possible respect, it seems to me that that’s exactly and precisely what you appear to be trying to do; and even if it isn’t deliberate, then this approach will, without any doubt whatsoever, achieve that same end anyway.

This is because people are not going to stop growing, and using, and supplying their friends and acquaintances, regardless of the law. Prohibition has never worked for anything, anywhere, ever, and it isn’t about to start in New Zealand where cannabis is concerned.

Legalised commercial supply for private consumption will lower the price overall, but the private cash/black market economy will continue to fill in any gaps that regulation attempts to create. That’s just the reality of supply and demand, folks.

In summary, then:

My suggestion to our Parliamentarians is fourfold.

1.     Completely decriminalise the cultivation, possession, and use of cannabis, for any personal purpose, by individual adults, within defined constraints around impairment.

2.     Fully legalise and regulate the cultivation, possession, sale, and processing of cannabis for all medicinal, recreational, and other commercial purposes, including export to such jurisdictions where it is legal.

3.     Treat industrial hemp in exactly the same manner.

4.     Do this now.

Driving whilst under the influence of drugs is already illegal. Tests already exist. They only need to be applied. Being wasted at work is already illegal. Giving stuff to kids, that might harm them, is already illegal. Most of the framework for dealing with cannabis in society is already in place.

And the simple human truth is that if recreational cannabis was legalised tomorrow, hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who don’t currently use it won’t go out and start – just like the hundreds of thousands who already do, aren’t about to stop, despite the fact that it isn’t legal to do so. It might become a little more visible, at least for a while. That’s what happened in Canada; toking a joint while you strolled through the shopping mall very quickly became uncool, and people went back to being more private about it.

And the Portuguese and Colorado experience shows that overall use, and particularly youth use, is likely to drop after legalisation.

And on top of all that, there are literally billions of foreign exchange dollars, and thousands of jobs, just waiting for us to give them the Green Light – or for someone else to beat us to them.

Of course we could just continue to fret, dither, and moralise, to tie up the Courts and waste Police time on matters that really don’t warrant it, to worry about the wrath of a bitter and vengeful God being visited upon us, the collapse of society into a mire of heathen depravity, or worse (for our politicians, in their own minds at least), savage punishment at the hands of an outraged electorate, who, um, haven’t actually been canvassed as to their views as yet.

Or we could grab the bull by the horns and get sensible about it all. I mean no-one is talking about making the stuff compulsory.

CBD is a case in point. It has only just been legalised for use in New Zealand, and only under a doctor’s prescription. But supplies are very restricted, very limited, and very expensive. Conversely, here in the UK, I can simply buy it over the counter at any health food shop, very cheaply, no questions asked, no immoral agenda inferred.

But it will take someone or someones from our House of Representatives, other than the Greens, to stick their head or heads above the parapet, to acknowledge the realities of this debate, to show some actual leadership; to stop being worried about upsetting the usual suspects from the usual noisy minorities, to stop running scared about being criticised or ridiculed, and to address this issue with common sense and maturity – as the Canadians just have.

Or you could just ignore all this, and press on with trying to start from your Nice Safe Conservative Very Tight Regulation position, which won’t achieve didly squat, because people will ignore it – BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT THEY’RE DOING NOW.

Richard Prosser

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© 2019  Richard Prosser