Why I’m Voting Yes to Legalising Cannabis
New Zealanders have a chance to vote in a referendum on or before October 17, 2020 to legalise and control cannabis. I have many reasons to despise marijuana – but I’m voting yes anyway.
Marijuana was the drug of choice of my ex-partner who was mellow when he used and irrational and violent when he wasn’t. It entered my son’s life too early and seemed to be the antidote to his struggles until he found better/worse substitutes. Friends’ horrific stories of parenting and nursing young people with marijuana-induced mental illness are real. Yet I’m voting yes.
My husband Opan and I were locked down in Islamabad due to Covid-19 in April while we waited for a flight to Australia. In the early evening we could walk nearby hills sharing the ancient paths with men dressed in kurta and facemasks, small herds of long-eared goats, and marijuana which grew wild and rampant around us. A group of young men laughed at Opan when he got up close to verify it, signing ‘crazy people’ to us but also communicating that it was a male plant and wouldn’t get anyone high.
In the world of drug addiction there are two separate and related harms. One the drug. Two, the addiction. They deserve different lenses.
Drugs are used in different cultures in some form for recreation, healing, enlightenment and so on. In my culture we drink alcohol to celebrate and socialise – yet when misused or overused, this neuro-toxic brew causes untold social damage. In Opan’s Indonesian village, young men who could not access legally available alcohol bought local arak (or tuak) for clandestine parties. The alcohol content varies widely and frequently results in death. In Pakistan, where alcohol is also restricted by law and religious norms, hashish is often used for relaxation and socialising. In the Pacific Islands we’ve seen the benign and the toxic impact of betel nuts or kava/’ava on communities.
Where once nature and social norms controlled the availability, quality and use of drugs – the prohibition and criminalisation of drugs has led to a dangerous underground market where any rubbish can be sold with no labels indicating potency or effects. (Read Antony Loewenstein’s book Pills, Powder, and Smoke: inside the bloody war on drugs to delve more into this history).
Positive, benign or malignant – drugs are endemic. We will never stamp them out and should not waste time trying. What we should do instead is bring them back into the daylight and look at them rationally. How can they help us? How can we ensure that people have access to safe products and doses? We know how to do this – we’ve been regulating alcohol, tobacco, and prescription medications for a long time. Making drugs legal means we can better control them. And that means safer communities. We also get to explore the medical benefits and opportunities that cannabis provides.
But won’t legalisation of cannabis lead to problematic use and addiction? People will continue to go ‘too far’ and it will be used by addicts, and they will put others at risk, and we will have to restrict use and curb behaviours as we do with alcohol. However, we can reduce harm and provide more targeted support to problem users – if we don’t advertise, cap potency levels, and restrict sales, as we do with tobacco.
There are other reasons to stamp out the illegal trade of cannabis by voting yes. A biggie is savings: reduced harm means lower health costs; legalisation means reduced law enforcement costs. Another reason is income. We can divert the calculated NZ$254 million of avoided tax from the sale of illegal drugs to the government (see The New Zealand Harm Index, 2016). This revenue could be diverted into supporting the prevention and treatment of addiction.
Legalisation will also stop the hypocrisy of labeling cannabis users as criminals but not alcohol users, and discriminatory practices that see more Maori and youth criminalised.
Check out this site for more reasons to vote yes info: https://www.healthnothandcuffs.nz/vote_cannabis.
So that’s why I’m voting yes. And, if you’re a New Zealander, I hope you will too.
Mandy Whyte is the author of ‘Dancing on a Razors edge: a mother’s mission to rescue her meth-addicted son’ (the Cuba Press, 2018) which promotes a human rights approach to the management and treatment of drug addiction.