Hard News by Russell Brown


Shots Fired

Last night's 11-minute debate on cannabis law reform on Q+A was hardly the first time the issue has been discussed on national television. But it can fairly be considered the opening round of the long argument that will precede the world's first referendum on changing national cannabis laws.

Indeed, it may well have been the first taste of the flavour of such an argument, with the two sides represented by Green MP Chloe Swarbrick – studious, careful, precise – and Family First's Bob McCoskrie, who delivered a stream of alarming claims about the consequences of legalising cannabis, many of which will be familiar to anyone who has followed the same debate in the US.

McCoskrie has swiftly emerged as the champion of a "No" vote largely because there currently isn't anyone else to carry that side of the argument. That quite probably will not remain the case, but it seems likely that there will be some flavour of culture war in our pre-referendum debate.

Reformers should not be complacent about that. However many reports McCoskrie cherry-picks and numbers he imagines, the fact is that he was on the winning side of a referendum nine years ago and he has some idea how these things are done.

In the citizens-initiated referendum of 2009, 87.4% of people who voted answered "No" to the question: Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?

For several reasons, this overwhelming result did not result in a repeal of the amendment created by Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Bill. The most significant of these reasons is, of course, that the referendum  was not binding on the government. But almost as important is the fact that the question did not explicitly seek such a repeal. It was ambiguous; it begged an opinion without actually proposing an action.

Our cannabis referendum may not be binding either. But it's safe to say that the question will be more meaningful. If it doesn't seek a yea-or-nay on a written reform bill already passed by Parliament (which would be the optimum, constitutionally speaking), it should at least offer a clear idea of what a legislative reform would contain.

Exactly what the proposed reform would be is not at all easy to anticipate. That will be up to the government, which will take into account feedback generated by a national campaign of public engagement. It's also unclear what reformers should want it to look like. As I discovered in my Matters of Substance story on the nature of a referendum question, citizens considering state ballot initiatives wanted, above all, reassurance about the consequences of a "yes" vote. A more conservative reform proposal may be more likely to get over the line.

But that's not as much of an issue as it might appear. McCoskrie repeatedly used the phrase "Big Marijuana". Actually, no one wants that, and some of the most dedicated cannabis law reform advocates actually favour a non-commercial model such as cannabis social clubs, with permission for possession and self-growing. It could be that the first round of legalisation in New Zealand won't look like much like Colorado, California or even Canada.

But we have a long way to go until we we know. Engagement and consultation can't begin until the Budget allocates money for such a process and that didn't happen this year. Budget 2019 will presumably allocate the funding, but after that the engagement process will need to be designed and executed. And then the government (and possibly Parliament) will need to consider what the feedback implies for a question.

So we're looking at a referendum held in conjunction with the 2020 general election. That's going to be interesting.


For now, it might be useful to have a look at some of the claims made last night. McCoskrie cited a number of alarming data points from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area report. It's complicated, but many findings in that report are at odds with most other reviews of the impact of legalisation, including those from Colorado police departments, and the Colorado Department of Education. This review of the claims in the report – most notably around teenage cannabis use, which successive studies have found is stagnating or decreasing – is useful reading. The RMHIDTA reports also contain some staggering statistical flubs. It's not that there's nothing to keep an eye on, but RMHIDTA is not a reliable data source.

Claim: Two thirds of Colorado jurisdictions have declined to permit cannabis retail outlets, yet there are more of them in the state than Starbucks and McDonald's combined. This is true. Dispensaries are concentrated in several cities, most notably Denver, and there aren't as many big food and coffee chain outlets as you might think. But smaller towns such as Parachute and Manitou Springs have reversed their earlier retails ban after seeing how much local sales tax the business was reaping in other places. Also, about half the dispensaries are medical and have been in place for some time. The number and concentration of such outlets and their ownership is something you'd want to address in any regulated market.

The gummy bears produced as "an example of Big Marijuana": firstly, this is a straight-up lift from a stunt performed by anti-cannabis campaigner Kevin Sabet in 2016. Sabet's gummy bears didn't contain THC and neither did McCoskrie's. They especially didn't contain "40% THC", which would be crazy – the measure McCoskrie seems to have been reaching for was 40 milligrams. Edibles, for all their appeal, have been an issue where weed has been legalised. They won't kill anyone, but in enough quantity may cause a very unpleasant few hours for the user. After a spate of accidental overdoses after legalisation in 2014, Colorado has tightened regulations around labelling, dose and resemblance to actual lollies and the industry is on board with it. Doses are limited to 10mg and, importantly, it's illegal to sell edibles that look like gummy bears. (Canada, meanwhile, has not allowed sales of edibles for the time being.)

On cannabis potency in legalised states: "60 to 80% is the average and you can get as high as 95%". This is utter nonsense. Yes, THC levels have been rising for years and were doing so long before legalisation. But potency of cannabis flower in dispensaries tops out around 25% and is more often under 20%. Concentrates are, obviously, higher, but still only around 60%. As Chloe Swarbrick pointed out, this can be, and is, regulated. Canada has not allowed concentrates at all – or (and this doesn't really make sense) vapourisers.

Finally: the merits of the Portugal model of decriminalisation of all drugs. I don't have time to go into this in depth and I'm not sure which UN Office of Drugs and Crime report on Portugal McCoskrie is referring to, but drug deaths and other drug harms have fallen dramatically under Portugal's policy. Moreover, UNODC has, along with 10 other UN agencies, called for the decriminalisation of drugs.

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