In 1967 I changed my mind on another referendum, about six o’clock closing, writes Roderick Aldridge.
I am an 80-year-old Pākehā male who has never smoked or used cannabis in my life. And I will be voting to legalise cannabis in the coming referendum.
This might seem absurd. My instinctive reaction, I expect like most people’s, is against anything that will increase the use of cannabis and the harm it causes. But then when I researched and thought about it, I completely changed my mind.
This is not the first time I have changed my mind like this. Back in 1967 there was a referendum on whether to end the six o’clock closing of pubs. At the time I was a teetotaller (I basically still am) and against anything that increased drinking alcohol and the harm it caused.
But I could see that the attempt to control drinking to before 6pm was backfiring – it had led to the infamous “six o’clock swill”. It set up a binge-drinking culture which persists to this day and has resisted all attempts to change to a culture of drinking in moderation. Also the law was not widely respected. It was more rigidly enforced in poorer areas. Wealthier people could belong to private clubs under different rules. Therefore, this teetotaller voted to end six o’clock closing.Similarly our cannabis control measures are not working. They have not worked for more than 40 years. More people are using cannabis than ever. Also cannabis has been joined by methamphetamine and other drugs which can cause far greater problems.
Cannabis use was already a problem and there was already a black market in 1975 but the 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act turned the problem into a disaster. This is because the Act made users into criminals just for trying it.
Young and vulnerable people have always taken risks, including experimenting with drugs, so the Act didn’t stop this. Instead it it put them into the hands of a market controlled by criminals with an incentive to grow their profits by getting vulnerable teenagers and others hooked on cannabis and other drugs. Many continue to get hooked on cannabis with the consequences we are all too familiar with.
Inevitably mutual antagonism and mistrust has developed and intensified between police and the people who use cannabis – and the often marginalised communities where they live.
As long as cannabis use is illegal most users will not trust any assurances that they will be helped instead of being penalised. If they are Māori, Pasifika or other marginalised groups they probably already know family, friends, or schoolmates who have been busted, suspended or expelled.
Making somebody addicted to a drug into a criminal is personal for me because someone close to me became addicted to heroin. She was molested by a trusted family friend. Like many others who have been molested she was trying to escape the stigma and feelings of worthlessness. She never sought help from us. She died of a heroin overdose – whether deliberate or accidental we will never know. We don’t criminalise those addicted to alcohol so why on earth do we criminalise those addicted to cannabis and other drugs? It is just about the worst thing you can do to them.
What they need is help to overcome their addiction and probably also to deal with the underlying problems/traumas which led them to get addicted in the first place. Instead they have to admit to being a criminal before asking for help – so they don’t ask for help or get it – so their addiction continues and deepens.
The only way to fix this is to make cannabis use legal and to take supply out of the hands of criminals. Nothing less will break through the wall of mutual mistrust built up between the police and marginalised communities by the 45 year “war on drugs”.
Whatever you call it unconscious bias, a legacy of colonialism, or anything else, it’s clear Māori are disproportionately harmed by our drug laws. Legalising cannabis use is the only way to avoid the law being selectively applied by a police and justice system biased against already marginalised communities.
Happily, the Cannabis Control Bill is designed to treat cannabis use as a health issue and to set up a (safe as possible) legal supply of cannabis so that anyone using cannabis doesn’t have to go to criminals or become a criminal themselves. Instead they will be free to seek help if they develop an addiction and for any underlying problems. They will be able to seek help to live constructive lives instead of being pushed into a life of crime.
Other states and countries have moved away from punitive laws. The government has used these experiences to design the safest and most effective system they know how for New Zealand. It avoids the development of a profitable and powerful industry such as the liquor industry which has prevented better control of alcohol in New Zealand. Māori and others have suggested further improvements which could be made before the bill is passed after the election. Even as it stands it could be part of a programme reverse the growing harm cased by the misuse of drugs.
Suddenly, voting to legalise cannabis and help people who have become addicted live constructive lives doesn’t seem absurd at all. In fact, it seems absurd to ruin anyone’s life by turning them into criminals at great human and financial cost to us all.
That is why this 80-year-old Pākehā male who has never used cannabis will vote yes to change New Zealand for the better. I urge you to do the same.