Hard News by Russell Brown


The cannabis referendum: the evidence

If the government has not lined up behind a "Yes" vote in this year's cannabis referendum the way some reformers would have liked, one entirely laudable thing it did do was commission some science around the public's choice.

That science landed today, in the form of the report from an expert panel convened by the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, Professor Juliet Gerrard. The panel was specifically not asked to make a recommendation, but instead to summarise the evidence on legalising and regulating cannabis.

The result is some quite admirable science communication, with evidence available in at-a-glance summaries and FAQs, and in detail. There's even an accompanying 25-minute video by Shirley Horrocks:

It would be redundant to go through all of it here, but it would be fair to say the panel seems to have found more common ground on the social harm caused by the current criminalisation of cannabis than on the public health consequences of legalisation and regulation, as observed in other jurisdictions, although it does indicate that on balance, legalisation will make it easier to get help with use problems and also make research easier to conduct.

Indeed, that's what Professor Gerrard focused on in an interview ahead of today's release

"Instinctively when people hear the word harm, they think about the medical harm. Less well documented is the social harm - people getting kicked out of school for a drug offence, a drug conviction on a record which could affect employment prospects and cascade into a series of social harms.

"The people in that situation are disproportionately young, disproportionately male and disproportionately Māori."

The panel has, however, found a consensus that cannabis is less harmful overall than the two currently legal social drugs, alcohol and tobacco – and on most measures at that. Whether legalising cannabis leads to a substitution of cannabis for alcohol is less clear.

 The at-a-glance page correctly notes a "progressive softening of the law" on cannabis in New Zealand, culminating in last year's Misuse of Drugs Act  amendment directing police discretion away from prosecution and towards a health-based response. It also observes that "enforcement may continue to discriminate against Māori and young men."

Cannabis arrests have already declined sharply over the past decade, and the panel says that the number of convictions "is also likely to decrease over time". Yet within this slow slide into de facto decriminalisation, leaving production and supply as criminal enterprises is "likely to continue to give rise to and boost organised and opportunistic crime."

What the panel doesn't canvas, but which I fret about sometimes, is some evidence that under decriminalisation (and permissive medicinal schemes) in US states, public health outcomes – and rates of youth use especially – were worse than under legalisation.

New Zealand Police are increasingly disinclined to prosecute cannabis possession – and the courts are granting discharges for people caught with as many as 20 plants, especially if there is some evidence of medicinal intent. I do worry about sliding into a messy, unregulated space the way Canada did. Youth use climbed right up to legalisation there, then stabilised and declined. Remember last year when Patrick Gower agonised on TV about the dab bars of Vancouver, where people were inhaling powerful concentrates? They actually predated legalisation by years and the new federal law is being used to close them down.

In Horrocks' video, Dr Irene Braithwaite of the Medical Research Insitute of New Zealand draws a distinction between "recreational" use and the medicinal use permitted and regulated under last year's Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Regulations. On one level, this is just clearing up the dfference between two laws, but as we know from research conducted in the past year by both MCANZ and Massey SHORE, there is a large group of  New Zealanders using cannabis illegally in ways that are at least as much therapeutic as "recreational". Adult use of cannabis isn't just one thing.

As controversial as it's proving to say, that community isn't necessarily going to switch wholesale to prescribed GMP-standard cannabis products – and certainly not before there are many more products and GPs willing to prescribe them. The referendum is about whether we should continue to criminalise those people too.

My impression overall is that there's more in the expert panel's consensus to please reformers than the people who favour continued prohibition of cannabis, especially in the area of social harms. To be honest, that was to be expected.

Whatever any of us takes from this exercise, I think the government is to be commended for requesting it and the PMCSA for delivering it in the way it has. Bravo.


There's another new presentation on the implications of cannabis legalisation – and in a place where you might not expect it.

Auckland Transport has just published a swathe of cannabis-related papers presented to its board last month and it while most of those are external documents attached for the reference of the board (including health and safety advice from Canada) , the discussion document presented by AT staff is solid, sensible stuff.

What's missing for now is active consideration of a switch from urine to saliva testing within AT itself. Saliva testing offers a much better measure of actual impairment, it will be fairer for employees and there's now a New Zealand Standard for it. AT should be talking about this to its employees and their unions.

But there's time for that. For now, AT deserves plaudits for getting out in front of the issues. Other organisations could follow suit.

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