health & science

Helen Clark backs cannabis legalisation

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark is making the case for a ‘yes’ vote in next year’s referendum. Laura Walters reports on the latest policy paper from Clark's think tank.

Helen Clark is throwing her weight behind the ‘yes campaign' ahead of next year's referendum on the legalisation of recreational cannabis use.

The former Prime Minister, health minister, and head of the United Nations Development programme, has spent the past two years as a commissioner at the Global Commision on Drug Policy.

The commission looks at evidence-based approaches to drug policy, so it was only natural her new think tank, the Helen Clark Foundation, would launch a paper on the issues surrounding the upcoming cannabis referendum.

Drug policy is an area close to Clark’s heart, and from her perspective it is “socially unjust” and unfair that some people in New Zealand continue to be prosecuted for the use and possession of weed.

A Christchurch longtitudinal study of more than 1200 children born in 1977 found 80 percent of Kiwis had used cannabis by the age of 25. This finding is consistent with other New Zealand surveys.

Nowhere near 80 percent of Kiwis have a conviction where cannabis-related charges were either the sole charge, or the most serious charge, but disproportionately Māori and marginalised young people are picked up by police.

“If you try to ban things you drive them into a criminal underworld, and that has a chain of consequences as well."

The recent passing of the Misuse of Drugs Act signalled a direction away from prosecution, to decriminalisation, but the reliance of police discretion meant there was still a grey area, Clark said.

She described prosecution for cannabis use and possession as a “blight on lives”. 

“If you try to ban things you drive them into a criminal underworld, and that has a chain of consequences as well.”

Internationally, there is a growing trend towards legalisation, and New Zealand was now moving in line with that, Clark said.

Regulation meant the ability to control things like the potency; where products were bought and sold; and education, research and public awareness campaigns.

Clark also believes the legalisation of cannabis could help prevent the deaths of often poor, marginalised and homeless people who risk their lives using synthetics.

Not encouraging cannabis use

Clark's campaign for a ‘yes vote’ in next year’s referendum wasn’t about glorifying cannabis or promoting its use, she said, but about facing the reality of cannabis in New Zealand communities, and looking at ways to address the issue to make people safe and guard against the risks.

“Those of us who speak out on these issues are not promoting the use of the drug.

“I think it’s quite dopey - to coin a phrase.”

Cannabis regulation should follow the current tobacco regime, with plain packaging and no advertising or promotion, she said.

“One would just hope that there would be the maturity and the appetite to say let’s have a zero-based look at this."

The foundation’s report, The case for YES, also recommends expunging minor cannabis offences from criminal records, setting the age restriction at 20 – as recommended in Andrew Little’s Cabinet paper – and ensuring the needs of those most affected by the current prohibition policy were “carefully considered when implementing and monitoring the legal market". The last recommendation includes ensuring those communities have equitable access to becoming producers and retailers.

Across the world, decisions about drug scheduling had a lot to do with historical, cultural and political factors, and nothing to do with scientific evidence, Clark said.

This is a view backed up by the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s paper on the classification of psychoactive substances, subtitled: ‘When science was left behind’.

In the case of next year’s referendum, Clark said she hoped Kiwis, and those who influenced voters, such as politicians, were mature and relied on scientific evidence, rather than ideology.

While National Party drug reform spokesperson Paula Bennett had been critical of the Government’s approach to the referendum so far, this was not necessarily a left versus right issue.

“One would just hope that there would be the maturity and the appetite to say let’s have a zero-based look at this,” Clark said.

Regulatory regime

The foundation’s paper also explores different regulatory regimes in countries where recreational cannabis has been legalised, and recommends market models in both Uruguay and North America be studied.

Until this point, most of the discussion has been around a commercial market that looks somewhat like that of Colorado.

But foundation executive director Kathy Errington said more attention should be paid to the Uruguay model, which is stringently controlled by the state, with the government the sole buyer of licences for cannabis production, and sole supplier for pharmacy-only licensed sales.

Users could buy products from a licensed pharmacy, approved cannabis clubs, and a small amount could be grown at home.

This model was not without its problems, with pharmacies sometimes running out of products.

However, New Zealand could benefit from exploring this approach, when creating its own regime, Errington said.

Helen Clark Foundation executive director Kathy Errington said cannabis was here to stay so NZ needed to create the best possible regulatory regime to address the issue and mitigate risks. Photo: Supplied

Ultimately, the market would need to be controlled to ensure large, commercial entities did not emerge and make significant profits. Government controls, through things like licensing limits, would need to be considered.

While the paper does not present a conclusive view on how the market should be structured, any proposed regulated model would be better than the current prohibition approach, Errington said.

On the other side of the debate, there is a strong group that opposes the legalisation of cannabis.

The ‘no campaign’ speaks largely about the risks of cannabis, a legitimate issue.

But both Errington and Clark, along with other campaigners like Green MP Chloe Swarbrick and the NZ Drug Foundation, argue the health, social and safety risks associated with cannabis use could be better managed and mitigated through a regulated regime.

“The 'no campaign' is debating whether cannabis should exist,” Errington said.

“That’s not where we’re starting from.”

The overwhelming majority of Kiwis were already using cannabis so there was no putting the genie back in the bottle, she said. The objective was to make people safer and better educated.

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