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Stay in our lane? Cannabis law reform *is* our lane

Hāpai Te Hauora CEO Selah Hart responds to recent criticism of the Māori Public Health organisation’s stance on cannabis law reform. The negative feedback highlights a lack of understanding of what public health really is, she writes.

In November we were told to “stay in our lane” during a lively but poorly-informed discussion on The AM Show. I was unable to give an interview that day, and the commentator who appeared in our place scoffed at Hāpai’s recent advocacy for a cannabis law reform process which prioritises Māori rights.

“Hāpai Te Hauora should stick to health promotion,” was the mocking comment which made me turn the television off in disappointment. We engage with reasoned debate daily in the course of our work but when people belittle and misrepresent us, it’s difficult not to feel deflated. This is even more disappointing when the commentator is Māori and someone who purports to work towards the same goals as we do – supporting Māori wellbeing. 

The media love this, of course. There’s nothing more delicious to a talk show host than Māori ridiculing other Māori. You can guarantee that the people who make outrageous statements, the more mean-spirited the better, will get called on the most. 

Health promotion is an important part of public health but it’s a small part of a very large field of work. One of the reasons I’ve dedicated my career to public health is that it is the most intuitively Māori of the health disciplines despite being framed within a Pākehā academic framework. This is because it is the most holistic; it deals with the health of populations rather than individuals. That makes sense to us, as Māori. It makes sense that the public health toolkit would have the greatest potential to drive transformative change for our communities. I define our mahi to my team as pro-sovereignty. We aren’t here to tell people what to do, we’re here to equip whānau with the tools to determine and achieve their own aspirations.  

We’re a large, national organisation and we can do more than one thing at a time. As we’ve grown over time, this has been seen as a strength that Hāpai offers funders, sector and institutional partners; we aren’t siloed to single issues. This is important because none of the concerns which affect our whānau exist in isolation. Take smoking for example. People don’t smoke because their lives are awesome. There are complicated and interrelated factors which impact on people initiating smoking, becoming addicted and finding it difficult to quit. It’s the same with drugs, alcohol and gambling. How do we know this? Twenty years of experience working across each of these issue areas. 

It was suggested that cannabis law reform was a poor use of our time partly because, “the referendum question hasn’t been decided yet”. It’s going to happen whether we get involved or not, and it is naive to think that the system which delivered us a majority of Māori in prison, reduced life expectancy and worse health outcomes across almost every indicator would somehow get it right this time without any input from Māori. Secondly, we make no apology for getting organised before the referendum question is written. We’re not encouraging whānau to vote yes or no to a unwritten question, we’re saying that we must be involved from the beginning.  

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Our team writes an average of one to two submissions providing the community perspective on a wide variety of issues to central government and local authorities each week. We might be in the media for maybe 5-10% of the work that we’re doing, but that’s not a measure of what’s going on behind the scenes. This is the point of working in the community, that we’re actually in the community. For this reason, yes we need to get ahead of things before they’re on top of us. We’re busy. This perpetual readiness is also borne of a cynicism which we’ve developed over many years of being asked to ‘consult’ on issues right when they’re about to be signed off. We’ve worked very hard to be more than a ‘brown tick’ and part of that involves being smart about getting in early and asserting our role as partners, not consultants after the fact.   

Despite the way the discussion was framed on The AM Show, we’re not alone in this. More than 50 Māori leaders got together to sign a letter that insists Māori are brought in on the cannabis discussions right up front. We’ve seen in Canada and in the USA that when those who are most harmed by prohibition can’t access any of the benefits of a legal market, the system simply doesn’t work and the black market persists. For those who are interested in why we made the decision to support this call to action, all the evidence is provided here.

Our kaumatua and kuia remember a time when it would have been laughable to suggest that te reo Māori would thrive again, that tikanga Māori me ōna tikanga would find a place in the colonial systems which have oppressed and continue to oppress us, and that our Parliament would have a majority of Māori leadership among the parties elected to govern. 

Our role is to keep pushing. We have learned that it is foolish to be complacent and celebrate gains achieved because the system will always regress to the bare minimum that it can get away with. This is a pivotal time in our country’s history where we have a real opportunity to change the lives of our mokopuna. We refuse to be limited by someone else’s definition of what’s possible. This is our lane. 


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