The author's grandma, Kate Harcourt (Photo: Getty Images)
The author’s grandma, Dame Kate Harcourt (Photo: Getty Images)

SocietyDecember 7, 2020

Drug law reform’s best hope? My grandma

The author's grandma, Kate Harcourt (Photo: Getty Images)
The author’s grandma, Dame Kate Harcourt (Photo: Getty Images)

Despite legalisation’s failure, in recent years the number and diversity of New Zealanders willing to break our drug laws has radically increased – and that should give advocates for change hope.

Over a family dinner my little sister decided to bring up cannabis. The legalisation referendum was weeks away and the topic had been bouncing around her classroom. “Pete, have you ever tried weed?” 

I have – mostly at high school, but occasionally since – prompting her to look to Mum and Dad with puritanical outrage. “Have you?” Bemused, they both nodded. Finally, with more despair than anger, my sister turned to ask, “And what about you, Grandma?” 

Kate, 93, was raised on a sheep station in Amberley. She went into radio and television – co-parenting a generation of pre-schoolers as host of the show Listen With Mother – and was eventually made a dame. There are few better examples of middle-class Kiwi values and achievement. 

“No.” Kate paused to grin at me across the table. “But I’d quite like to. Pete, can you arrange that?” My sister huffed, the family laughed and we moved on.

We now know that legalisation failed in an agonisingly close race. Meeting my grandma’s request still means breaking the law; I haven’t (yet) done so. But recently published data from the Ministry of Health has exposed a strange irony: despite legalisation’s recent failure, over the past decade the number and diversity of New Zealanders willing to break our drug laws has radically increased. As advocates continue to campaign for a change to our outdated drug laws, the growing number of people like my grandma should give them hope. 

According to the Ministry of Health’s annual New Zealand Health Survey, in 2011/12 the percentage of New Zealanders who would admit they recreationally tried cannabis within the past year was 8%. That number has crept upwards ever since. By 2019/20, the most recent year for which data is available, the percentage had almost doubled to 14.9%. 

That topline number hides differences between ethnic groups and age brackets, but the common theme is of large increases. 

Of the major ethnic groups, Asian New Zealanders are the least likely to have recently tried cannabis – but between 2011/12 and 2019/20, the percentage who admitted to it had almost tripled to 4.1%. 

Cannabis use was much more common among New Zealand Europeans and Pasifika, who experienced similar increases. Between 2011/12, the percentage of New Zealand Europeans who had recently tried cannabis almost doubled to 15.5%. 

Among Pasifika, the percentage who had recently tried cannabis increased from 8.1% in 2011/12 to 15.3% in 2019/20. The increase was most remarkable among Pasifika women, where the rate almost quadrupled from 3.3% to 12.6%. Māori have the highest rates of recent cannabis use. In 2011/12, 20.6% had recently tried it. Eight years later, that had increased to 32%. 

Just as with ethnic groups, cannabis use has also increased significantly in every age bracket. The largest percentage increases were among younger Kiwi: the percentage of 15 to 24 year olds who had recently tried cannabis increased from 14.9% in 2011/12 to 26.4% in 2019/20; for 25 to 34 year olds, the increase was from 16.3% to 24.2%. 

But – as my grandma might have predicted – the largest proportional increases were concentrated among older New Zealanders. The percentage of 55 to 64-year-olds who had recently tried cannabis almost quadrupled from just 2.2% in 2011/12 to 8.2% in 2019/20. The proportional increase among 65 to 74-year-olds was even more stark: the percentage almost quintupled from 0.6% to 2.8%.

Assuming the trend of the last decade continues, hundreds of thousands more New Zealanders of every age and socio-economic background will try cannabis in the coming years. As that number grows, it is reasonable to assume so too will the number willing to politically oppose drug prohibitions that are a farce for the white middle class and a fetter for the poor or brown. 

The rapid growth of recreational cannabis use among New Zealand Europeans and older demographics is particularly important in that political context. It was those groups that drove the success of the referendum’s “No” vote; polling from before and after the referendum indicates that just half of New Zealand Europeans and less than a third of New Zealanders over 65 voted “Yes”. If support for legalisation increased among those groups, especially given how close the referendum result was, success would be highly likely. 

Consequently, more than the logic of legalisation or the closeness of the referendum, it is these increases in consumption across the board that should inspire proponents of drug law reform. The growing curiosity and willingness to experiment of people like my grandma is their best chance of success.

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