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Legalising cannabis in Aotearoa has huge potential to benefit Māori. It is a sad and unacceptable truth that the people most harmed by prohibition are Māori, young and male. More than for any other group, drug law reform is a big issue for tangata whenua, as most Māori have seen the human cost of our bad drug law first-hand. 

But it is also true that cannabis use causes harm in Māori communities. Māori academics and health experts say under legalisation, controlling access to legal cannabis products will need to be balanced with access to treatment. There should be strict rules to stop the kinds of oversupply of alcohol and tobacco seen in many communities. The devil will be in the detail if and when we regulate, to ensure that one set of problems is not replaced by another. 

Speaking in a webinar hosted by the Drug Foundation’s Kali Mercier, Hāpai Te Hauora CEO Selah Hart, AUT associate law professor Khylee Quince and Te Rau Ora's AoD Innovation project leader Tracey Potiki agreed that legalisation would be far better than the status quo, but that any law change needed to be first and foremost about harm reduction for Māori. This was considered more important even than future economic opportunity.  

Speaking from a legal perspective, Quince said legalisation would immediately reduce harm to Māori in the sense that possession would no longer be a crime, and that from a criminal justice perspective the draft bill overall was good news. It would certainly be better than the system we currently have, which involves a huge amount of discretion applied unequally by police. “Most people caught with low level cannabis-related breaches aren’t charged - those who are are young male and Māori. So legally speaking [legalisation] will make a difference.” Suspicion of cannabis possession would also no longer be a gateway for police to search your car, home or person, which would make a huge difference to Māori communities, she said. 

Quince did hold some concerns though that the four plant per household restrictions didn’t take into account the fact many Māori lived intergenerationally, with many people living in one home, and she worried that we would see over-policing of “certain kinds of households” if there was no flexibility around personal growing amounts.  

The restriction of use in public also raised alarm bells. “Who does that leave out in the cold? Young people generally, and people who do not have a whare,” Quince said. “Police tend to surveil people who are out in public. There’s a potential issue there in regards to over-policing. We do not want a heavy hand in regards to the homeless.”  

Hart said the over-supply of alcohol, tobacco and fast food in lower socioeconomic areas, many of which have a high Māori population, saw “devastating impacts on our whānau. This Bill really needs to ensure we cover that off from the outset, that we have a balanced approach.” 

Potiki said she was pleased to see the Bill appeared to try to address these potential issues from the outset. “We have learned our lessons from alcohol and the alcohol industry input and the influence it’s had.” 

Of advertising, Hart said “we don’t want it to be a free-for-all.” She acknowledged public health initiatives could either hurt or harm already vulnerable communities, but felt the draft Bill seemed to do a good job of taking into account the need for measures like good public education about cannabis use.  

Legalisation would almost certainly be better than the status quo of the last 40 years, she said, but work would need to be done to ensure it led to the best possible outcome from a health and harm reduction perspective. That would include shifting attitudes about both drug use and drug dependence to view both as a health issue. “If the country wants to see a ‘yes’ in September, that’s when the hard yards really start for us.”

 Quince also called for balance, saying every region with access to legal cannabis should also have access to public health services which help address the harm it can cause. “Why that’s relevant to Māori is that currently there are many communities in which there is very poor infrastructure.” This was across the board, and particularly acute in areas of high deprivation, she said. 

From an economic perspective, Potiki questioned how many Māori would be interested in moving from the illicit market to the legal market, saying many are distrustful of their Treaty partner the Crown, and may not be interested in gaining legal licences.  “Māori have campaigned long and hard to be involved as a partner in all decisions that affect and are about us, and we’re consistently disappointed with our treaty partner’s inability to engage in a meaningful way with us.  

“That isn’t that I think we should vote no - it’s a big yes from me [because] it will reduce harm, it will address some issues around stigmatisation. It will remove that stigma currently sitting around cannabis use, and it will stop some people in my own whānau from becoming more criminalised and more stigmatised by what they’re doing now.”  

Quince said many iwi had bigger issues to focus on than trying to get into the legal cannabis market. 

Hart emphasised the importance of funding academic research into the effects of legalisation, so that we could be sure of its effects in society “so we can evaluate and reset if needed.” Both Hart and Potiki said the proposed five-year mark for review was too long, and an initial review should be conducted sooner so we would get an earlier sense of where there were problems.

Finally, Hart raised the fact that historically Māori have often been left disappointed or feeling tokenised in their dealings with the Crown. Māori involvement in cannabis legalisation and regulation will need to be a true partnership of equals, she said.  

You can watch the recording here: Māori perspectives on the Cannabis Control Bill: live chat recording

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