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Cannabis: make it legal but don’t let anyone make money from it

by Nic Beets

I don’t want big business marketing marijuana to my kids.  This is what will happen in Canada with the recent purchase of a market-leading marijuana business by a major tobacco company. In Aotearoa, right now, we have a chance to do something different.

I’m very much in favour of legalizing pot; like the majority of kiwis, I think the hypocrisy of criminalising people who use a drug that is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco must end.  The need is made more urgent by the fact that it is young people and Maori and Pasifika whose lives are blighted by this inequity.    

I want to challenge the assumption that legalisation is synonymous with commercialisation.  We have a unique opportunity to avoid the mistake that was made with alcohol and tobacco: we should not allow businesses, and the government through taxes, to profit from the sale of harmful substances and hence have every incentive to market them aggressively.

Using pot has risks, although significantly less than alcohol or tobacco, so the primary aim of any legislation should be to minimise harm.  For a government to pass legislation with any other aim is unacceptable.  The most effective way to minimise harm is to minimise consumption.  

Taking away the profit motive is key.  Without profit, there is no marketing.  The purpose of marketing is to increase profit by increasing sales.   In the case of drugs like alcohol or cannabis "increasing sales" equates to increasing harm.  

This is the opinion of Dr Benedikt Fischer, a professor of  addiction research at the University of Auckland. He was a scientific advisor to the Canadian Government in developing its cannabis legalisation framework.  In a recent Herald opinion piece he advised:

Keep the cannabis industry at bay… any commercial industry's overarching objective is to sell as much product as possible… Such dynamics have resulted in extensive public health harms with alcohol and tobacco – and should not be repeated for a newly legal cannabis industry.

The solution is simple: make it legal but don’t let anyone make money from it. 

Cannabis is an easy plant to grow.  It needs minimal soil and care.  You can grow enough to keep the average user supplied in a planter on a balcony.   There is already a strong culture of sharing amongst pot smokers.   All of this means that it is possible to legalise the growing and use of marijuana and yet keep it illegal to sell it for profit.  

Here is a proposal taken from a draft of a forthcoming paper to be presented at an international law conference:

That the law should be amended so that: (a) there is no law against the possession or consumption of cannabis; and (b) there is no law against cultivating cannabis, and no legal limit on the quantity that a person can cultivate; and (c) there is no law against giving cannabis away (except to children); but (d) selling cannabis is a criminal offence and there is no licensed industry (other than for medical purposes).

I’m putting this out there because the debate that will shape the referendum about the legal status of cannabis has started and it will take public pressure to prevent the government from going down the commercialisation route.  No-one seems to be considering this possibility (apart from my mate Simon who was the first one to suggest this solution to me).  Some organisations tasked with harm minimisation seem fixated on getting more funding for their education campaigns rather than coming up with proposals to minimise harm.  

The government is unlikely to take the lead on this. We know from the USA and Canadian experiences that governments find new sources of tax revenue irresistible. The public health benefits of preventing another recreational drug being added to the list of products being marketed to us are obvious. The state, always under fiscal pressure,  finds itself conflicted between minimising harm by discouraging usage and its appetite for potential revenue.   If it gives in to greed, then once again the state places itself in a hypocritical position regarding cannabis and undermines its own credibility – not a good outcome for any legislation.  

 A law that allows a commercial market creates spaces for a black market.  Established criminals with existing distribution networks will find ways to undercut legal suppliers. However if we legalise the growing but not the sale, we undercut everybody.  It’s a pretty safe bet that there isn’t going to be much profit if you can grow it yourself for free.   

The exception to the ban on commercial marijuana sale should be for medicines.  It is an outrageous anomaly that someone in pain can easily get a relatively dangerous opioid medication but not a significantly safer one derived from cannabis.  Cannabis based medicine should be dealt with like any medicine – it requires careful testing, quality control, standardised dosages etc.  Medicines should be taken under medical direction with care taken that the right kind of active ingredients are given to treat the right kinds of conditions, interactions with other drugs are monitored etc.

Coming back to the recreational drug – we are a nation that still has a strong DIY spirit.     It’s too late for alcohol and tobacco.  We have a chance to do something different with cannabis.   Let’s do it ourselves, grow our own, share it with our friends and keep the kinds of people who have no qualms about making money from doing harm (e.g. big tobacco or gangs) well away from this drug at least.

Nic Beets is a clinical psychologist in private practice specialising in couple therapy who has spent far too much of the last 25 years addressing the impact of drug abuse.

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