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We all worry about the mental health risks of cannabis use by young New Zealanders. Maybe we should worry more about whether we are doing anything about it. Right now, handing out a conviction and punishment is all the law can offer. Is this the best we can do? 

The latest health survey shows 445,000 people used cannabis in the last year. This follows years where use has been recorded at similar levels. We need to be doing so much more to curb the problems that many experience. This is why legalising adult-use is on the table.

Most people would agree that using cannabis can potentially be hazardous to your health. However, there is no consensus what we do about this. Foremost in our minds should be those most at risk, including people who use heavily, young people, and anyone with a family history of psychosis or schizophrenia.

How well are we protecting people under the current regime? Right now, all elements of cannabis production and supply are left in the hands of unregulated black market operators.

What this means in practice is no-one asks for an ID before a purchase. Without labels, nobody knows how potent a batch is or whether they are taking more than a single dose at a time. Neither is there control over when the drug is sold, where it’s sold, or to whom. There is no mandate to promote alternatives like vaping. And people are definitely not provided with a leaflet informing them of the risks.

Our current system is best described as hands-off. This is despite ongoing efforts by police to control the supply and enforce the law. Seasonal photo opportunities of helicopter raids may give the impression that the fight against cannabis is going well, but the figures tell a different story: demand is undiminished. Senior officers have been heard to say we can’t police our way out of this problem.

Not that criminalising people who use cannabis has stopped. Last year 1,700 convictions were handed out for cannabis possession or use, and in the last decade there were over 45,000. Young people and Māori receive a disproportionate share of those convictions.

A conviction can affect employment, family relations, mental health, travel, insurance, housing and more – and those ongoing impacts are often completely out of proportion to the ‘crime’ itself. 

Taken in combination, this is the perfect environment for stigma to flourish. Not only do people with a drug conviction miss out on jobs and other opportunities, but they are reluctant to step forward and ask for help when they need it.

It is not credible to say the current situation is a success. We can do much better.

The referendum on legalising cannabis for adult-use next year gives us a chance to put this right. A raft of public health safeguards will be introduced, which will mean we’re better able to tackle the problems we currently see.

A regulated approach to cannabis will usher in a regime where:

  • Only people over 20 years of age can legally use cannabis
  • Advertising and sponsorship is banned
  • Location of any outlets, as well as signage and displays, is tightly controlled
  • Information about health risks and safer ways to use is handed out to consumers at point of sale.

The level of detail the government has provided so far gives the Drug Foundation enough confidence to support a Yes vote. However, there are some omissions we would like to see addressed as the bill is developed.

Regulatators should favour smaller producers over large-scale industry, preferably with a community development focus. And there is more work to be done around drug driving and impairment in the workplace.

We would only support this shift if it’s accompanied by increased access to education, harm reduction and addiction treatment. This is something the Wellbeing Budget looks set to deliver on. Based on our own work with young people, we know it’s possible to enable everyone to make better decisions about their own health and futures. 

Some countries have already started along this path, with few of the predicted problems eventuating. Canada, which legalised adult use of cannabis last October, reports no increase in mental health problems. Over the next five years CA$62.5 million is being invested in community-based education programmes, particularly for young people.

As a public health organisation with a 30-year track record, the Drug Foundation did  not come to this position lightly. In the lead up to the referendum, we will present the case that harmful use is more likely to be reduced by regulating access, than by sticking with the status quo. This is so important, we can’t leave it to chance.  

 

 

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