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Andrew Little walks past the audience to the podium, followed by Ross Bell

The message was clear: Prohibitive drug laws world-wide are rooted in racism, and continue to marginalise disadvantaged people – particularly people of colour. A vote for legal, adult use of cannabis next year is a vote to stop the injustice.

Speakers at our sold-out Through the Maze parliamentary symposium last Friday shared stories of loss, personal growth and hope. Parliamentary host Kiri Allen called them “taumaha korero” – heavy stories. It was the right time to release Taking control of cannabis: A model for responsible regulation, a new Drug Foundation report that shows how we can take back control of cannabis from organised crime, and help inform the government’s thinking around regulation.

US lawyer and advocate Deborah Small told the 130-strong crowd that the war on drugs was originally a political tool used to suppress African Americans and anti-war hippies. This has since been publicly acknowledged by one of US President Richard Nixon’s top advisers, John Ehrlichman – that’s a matter of record.

"Drug use is equally distributed socio-economically. One of the many pernicious aspects of prohibition and the way it reinforces racism is that it allows people to be in denial about the problems in their own communities.”

Deborah Small speaks at the 2019 Through the Maze symposium

Author and activist asha bandele said drugs have become a moral issue, taking on a life of their own – but in reality, “drugs are just drugs. They don't have a value. We impose a value on them. They can be used for good or bad. It's about how humans interact with them, or choose to”.

asha lost her own son to the drug war, after an early conviction for cannabis set him on a wayward path. She said every day is a reason to hope things can change for the better.

Tricia Walsh speaks at the 2019 Through the Maze symposium, as asha bandele and Chester Borrows listen

Former Prime Minister Rt Hon Helen Clark said the money spent by police to enforce cannabis laws was "ridiculous", calling this use of public resources a "waste of time, effort and money". 

"We can do a lot better than the nonsense regime we've got.” 

As the minister in charge of the upcoming referendum, Andrew Little said he hoped the debate would remain focused on science, “and keep the name-calling, the fake news and the posturing to a reasonable minimum”.

New Drug Foundation board member Tricia Walsh moved many to tears with an account of her own personal journey from an abusive childhood, through gang membership, drug use and prison, to her position now as a community advocate. She said that cannabis probably saved her life during her darkest times.

Being criminalised has impacted on not just me, but my children, their children, and my community."

Tricia Walsh

The highly-engaged audience directed many of their questions to former Justice Minister Chester Borrows, who chaired Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora - the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group.  Chester’s own position comes from a gradual awakening that occurred throughout his life as he moved from small-town cop, to prosecutor and then defence counsel – frequently defending those people he had previously prosecuted.

He said the best way to change people’s view is to tell them your story – and then tell them a story of the success you have had.

“People hate being told they’ve got it wrong… they’ve got to come to that realisation on their own.”

Khylee Quince, associate professor of law at AUT, said most of the young, predominantly Māori, men she supports through sentencing have had their education cut short due to exclusion for drug use. She said the harm from prohibition far outweighs the harm of cannabis itself.

"I think prison is the bogey man in the mind of the white middle class. That prison is the worst possible thing that can happen to you … for our whānau, and our communities, it really isn't."

Here’s a collection of photos capturing the day.

Download Taking control of cannabis: A model for responsible regulation.

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Two memorable events

Our Unify Rally and Through the Maze parliamentary symposium were some of our most moving and memorable events ever, thanks to the inspirational words and compelling arguments of speakers asha bandele, Deborah Small, Helen Clark, Andrew Little, Chester Borrows, Kingi Snelgar, Khylee Quince, Julia Whaipooti, Tricia Walsh and MC Stacey Morrison.

Media coverage surrounding the two events was extensive. Here’s a selection:

RNZ: Deborah Small – Racism and the “War on drugs”

RNZ: Govt commits to helping cannabis debate focus on facts and evidence.

RNZ: Cannabis: Fighting for facts ahead of referendum

TVNZ: Breakfast: asha bandele interview

TVNZ: 1newsnow: Ex-PM Helen Clark lashes out at current cannabis laws in NZ ...

Newshub: Helen Clark says new medicinal cannabis scheme too expensive

The Spinoff: Five ways to make the best bill ahead of next year’s 2020 cannabis referendum

The Spinoff: Rebuilding from the rubble of the failed war on drugs

Stuff.co.nz: Best way to take control of cannabis is to legalise and regulate it

NZ Herald: War on drugs tied to racism and used to target the marginalised – US drug reformists.

NZ Herald: David Cormack: The cannabis debate and the lives devastated by drug use

NZ Herald: Teuila Fuatai: Cannabis reform critical for Māori  men

NZ Herald: Ross Bell: Legalising cannabis means less harm

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