Law reformer Max Abbott: ‘If you’re dying and in extreme pain, why can’t you smoke cannabis if you like?’

The news that the Greens’ medical marijuana bill is to go before parliament has prompted speculation that cannabis law is set for a long-overdue change. Catherine McGregor sat down with law reform advocate Professor Max Abbott to discuss all things marijuana.

When it comes to cannabis law reform in New Zealand, it can often feel like a constant case of one step forward, two steps back. It happened again just recently. No sooner had associate health minister Peter Dunne proposed moving marijuana possession from the Crimes Act to the Psychoactive Substances Act – paving the way for a regulated legal market – than prime minister Bill English poured cold water on the idea. “We don’t want to encourage open trading in cannabis and a whole industry around it,” he said, dashing the hopes of campaigners who argue that the current laws cause untold damage, whether it’s needlessly criminalising a significant section of the population, rejecting marijuana’s proven medical benefits, or encouraging and supporting organised crime.

But wait! Some good news: on Saturday it was announced that doctors would be permitted to prescribe the medicinal cannabis product cannabidiol (CBD), though without Pharmac funding. And just a few hours ago the Greens’ bill to fully legalise the medical usage of marijuana and cannabis products was selected from the ballot for parliamentary debate.

One person who’s gotten used to viewing the cannabis issue as a long game is Professor Max Abbott, AUT’s dean of health and environmental sciences, mental health expert, and a long-time advocate for sensible drug laws. In 1984, he spoke at the Great Marijuana Debate at Auckland Town Hall, what seemed then like a watershed moment in the battle for decriminalisation. Thirty-three years on, he’s still fighting. I talked to him recently about the reasons he continues to speak up for law reform, what New Zealand can learn from other countries where it’s happened, and where to next.

Let’s start with the basics. What’s your position? What are you campaigning for in terms of cannabis law?

I would legalise personal use of cannabis for medicinal and for recreational purposes, so it would no longer be an offence to possess or grow small amounts for your own use. I think initially it would be politically easier to get decriminalisation for medicinal use – that’s what’s permitted at the federal level in Australia now.

The view that I’m putting forward is far from radical. In the last poll of New Zealand adults on this issue 82% favoured either decriminalistion or legalisation of cannabis use for medicinal purposes and just under two thirds favoured full decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis. So it’s no longer an unusual position.

As a result of our laws thousands of people are still being criminalised. Being dragged through the courts, especially when you’re young and vulnerable, often Māori or Pacific, with low education or unemployed, is hugely damaging. The law is selectively applied, it’s discriminatory, it undoubtedly increases inequality and other health disparities. Being dragged through the courts and everything that goes with it – especially if you’re vulnerable already – is a very definite health hazard.

An ad placed by New York-based drug distributor JL Hopkins & Co. (135 William Street, New York) in a 1917 publication. (Public domain)

I was reading a study that showed that in fact yes, police are arresting fewer people for cannabis possession than before – unless you’re Māori.

That’s been the case for years. There’s been a trend of using diversion and warnings and ignoring and stuff, but as you say, they selectively do it. A lot of cops would like to go the decriminalisation or legalisation route, in fact we’ve had a previous police commissioner who’s said that would be his preference, but they have mixed feelings about it. The law as it stands can be quite useful for them. They can use it to get around the bill of rights and violate fundamental human rights. On the suspicion that you might have cannabis or be growing it, they can bust into your house and do whatever they want. And so they can use it sometimes for other purposes – for other criminal activities they’re investigating.

The other issue is that it actually undermines people’s belief in the rule of law, and it undermines the standing of the police as well, because the law is supposed to be the law. If it’s a law, it should be enforced, universally. Which of course if it did happen would mean that our imprisonment rate – already one of the highest in the world – would be probably doubled or more, if they actually arrested everybody who used cannabis.

If medical marijuana did become decriminalised, would you continue to campaign for full legalisation?

Oh absolutely. While the two issues overlap, I think you should consider them separately. But as an interim measure, the easiest thing would be simply decriminalisation for the possession or growing of small amounts for whatever purpose. I think Peter Dunne would already support decriminalisation for medical use if prescribed by a practitioner. The problem, as we’ve seen in Canada, is that putting cannabis-based products through clinical trials is very difficult if cannabis products are illegal.

So in Canada they’re planning total legalisation?

Yes, everything. They already have medical marijuana. I read a meta-analysis of all the research on legalised medical marijuana recently and there’s no evidence of an increase in adolescent use of cannabis in those jurisdictions. Portugal is a more interesting case, because there all substances have been legalised and their drug use has gone down, across the board.

An advertisement distributed by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1935. (Public domain)

The strength of cannabis is much higher than it used to be. Is that also an argument for legalisation, and therefore, regulation?

That’s one of the arguments for models whereby the state actually manufactures or carefully regulates products. In Canada, for example, their gambling industry in most provinces is run by government agencies, not private enterprise. In the Scandinavian countries they used to do the same with alcohol. So there are models they could use for doing that. The argument for it would be that it’s easier to tax and to regulate the strength and quality. The other approach, which they use in Vermont I believe, is allowing people to grow a certain amount for their own use, and not having an organised market at all. I wouldn’t want us to go the way of some states in America where I believe they’ve gone overboard and it’s become too commercialised. I just think we should err on the side of caution.

Listening to you talk about the best way for NZ to organise distribution, I can’t help thinking that the prospect of all this happening seem further away than ever. Would you agree?

No, at least not for medical usage. There is slow movement: at one time, no usage at all was legal, then the law changed so the minister could approve specific uses on the recommendation of a practitioner. Bureaucrats may have held up applications, but I don’t believe Peter Dunne declined any that came across his desk, usually decided within 12 hours. It’s just that not many have arrived there. And then there’s the supply question, because getting access to these products is difficult and expensive. Now the law has changed again, so it’s an official’s approval that’s required, not the minister’s. [Author’s note: Following our conversation it was announced that practitioners would be allowed to prescribe the medical cannabis product CBD without seeking Ministry approval.]

I think all the political parties agree, other than National. Labour flops around a bit but if it was a conscience vote, it would go through I’m sure. So in the event that there’s a Labour-led government I think there’d be movement – possibly a referendum; if it’s National again, and Winston Peters is required, he may make it a condition of finance and supply. He’s from Northland, he understands the issues involved.

I think the Helen Kelly story really brought it home for a lot of people and changed a lot of minds.

And you’ve got people like Paul Holmes and Martin Crowe – with both either they themselves or family members publicly stated that they used cannabis and it helped with discomfort, especially in their final days. I think that has been helpful, in terms of shifting public opinion. It’s actually hard to believe that, when you’re dying and in extreme pain, that you can’t smoke cannabis if you like, for chrissakes.

Professor Max Abbott

You’ve been involved in the campaign for cannabis law reform for a long time, right back to 1984 when you were part of The Great Marijuana Debate at a packed-out Auckland Town Hall. It seems like there was a groundswell of support then, and then for some reason all that energy petered out. Why do you think people don’t care as much as they used to about the issue?

I really don’t know what it was that shifted it, to be honest. At that time I thought that within five years, or definitely within a decade – sooner rather than later – that there’d be at least decriminalisation. Of all the various campaigns I’ve been involved with – and for some of which the results have been unbelievable – we closed the psychiatric hospitals, where we once had about 8,000 people locked away in terrible conditions and they’ve all gone, we’ve put a completely new system in place. And yet something like this, which is pretty straightforward, and other countries have managed it… I think the myths around cannabis had a big effect, like that it led to other drugs – the ‘gateway’ stuff – and there’s a tendency to highlight negative things too. Any health impact that’s negative, people seem to latch onto it and exaggerate it.

The Dunedin longitudinal study has shown some quite scary results regarding the relationship between marijuana use as a teenager and IQ levels 20 years down the track. I understand that that this is a separate issue from legalisation – if anything, legalisation might actually have a net health benefit – but as a mental health expert that must be something you are concerned about.

One of the things that is quite interesting is that in the case of alcohol, gambling and tobacco, throughout the world, there’s actually been a massive reduction in youth usage, which really surprises me. But even though they’ve dropped, there’s still a sub-grouping that uses more intensively. So the associated harm isn’t necessarily dropping. I think it’s the same with cannabis – we need to put measures in place to do all we can to reduce even further adolescent use, and particularly those who are most at risk.

I think that one study from Dunedin has to be looked at in context. It’s quite a strong study methodologically, but it still doesn’t establish causation. There could be factors common to cannabis use and IQ decline that explain, at least partially, the connection. It’s not definitive, but it’s certainly a situation where we’d want to err on the side of caution and I think, just like smoking and alcohol, the longer you can delay people getting into it on a regular basis, the better.

So what are some ways you’d discourage use in a legalised environment?

Well in Canada, concurrent with legalisation, they’re actually greatly tightening the law in relation to supplying cannabis to younger people. Like, you will go to prison. So you could certainly retain some laws around supply, as we should be doing with shops that sell alcohol and tobacco to minors. We have toughened up on that, to an extent – you look at how careful supermarkets are about selling to minors – so if the supply was formalised, you could certainly have strict penalties for selling to younger people. I think that would be one thing. Also ongoing education: attitudes do change over time and I think a lot of young people are aware of the research we discussed before. And of course they know from some of their friends who are heavy users that it can have negative effects in terms of their development and their futures. Young people aren’t stupid – in fact they’re very knowledgeable.


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