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SocietyMay 27, 2024

Here’s what Aotearoa might have looked like today if we legalised weed in 2020


Four years ago, we voted against legalising cannabis. But what if the referendum had gone the other way?

It’s a Saturday afternoon in Ponsonby, and an impeccably dressed woman is buying supplies for the 40th birthday party she is throwing herself that evening. After filling the car with drinks and snacks, she swings by KIWEED, her local cannabis dispensary, to buy some edibles. 

In the well-lit and tastefully decorated shop, she is grateful for some advice from the friendly salesperson who recommends a selection of weed-infused Pineapple Lumps, ANZAC biscuits and feijoa-flavoured gummies, using a strain of marijuana that he says should create a relaxed sense of euphoria while keeping its users sociable and chatty. After checking her ID and processing the payment, the retailer waves her out the door with wishes of a fun night ahead. 

While this might seem like a scenario from a movie, another country or even an alternate universe, moments like this could actually be pretty commonplace here in Aotearoa today if we hadn’t collectively voted against cannabis legalisation (by the narrowest of margins: 50.7% to 48.4%) in the 2020 referendum. Prohibition has been expensive and largely unsuccessful, leaving us with an uncontrolled black market, and despite its status as a class C drug, we have a real appetite for the electric puha with around 635,000 New Zealanders consuming 58 tonnes of illicit bud each year.

The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, proposed by the Labour/Green coalition before the ill-fated referendum, approached cannabis as a health issue rather than a legal one and was based on restricting access and reducing overall use and harm through regulation and education. It proposed a minimum purchase age of 20, with use limited to private homes and licensed premises. 

Those with a green thumb would be allowed to grow a maximum of two plants for personal use, and the commercial supply chain was to be heavily licensed, with strict requirements around product purity and labelling of THC content (the psychoactive compound). Just like tobacco, advertising would have been banned, and the drug was to be taxed to manage the price of retail cannabis and directly fund new harm-reduction strategies. 

So what would life look like right now, almost four years later, if these changes had come into effect? Would the grass be greener on the other side?

When conducting this thought experiment, it would be easy to slip into cartoonish visions of a giggling skunk-fuelled wonderland or a red-eyed society spiralling out of control, depending on which side of the drug reform fence you sit on. But the reality of what would unfold here is likely to be more complex and nuanced, as has been discovered in Canada and the handful of US states that have forged ahead with their own legalisation roll-out and experienced some interesting downwind effects in the areas of user numbers, health and safety, justice and the economy. 

For this exercise, I looked at some of North America’s early learnings as well as stats from local sources, leaning heavily on New Zealand pre-referendum projections by Business and Economic Research Ltd (BERL) for the Ministry of Justice. I also drew on observations from living in Canada in 2018 during their transition to legal weed. 

It is a complex topic with every jurisdiction approaching drug reform differently, so it sometimes feels like comparing apples to oranges, but it is worth noting that our proposed law changes involved stronger regulations for the production and sale of the drug than the majority of US states where cannabis has been legalised, and our nationwide roll-out would have differed from Canada’s patchwork of regulation across different provinces.

Full disclosure: I had high hopes of seeing marijuana legalised here, and was one of the 48% of people who voted YES in the referendum. But I have based my projections on the sources above, not my own optimistic thinking – at least, I hope not too much. 

a yellow sign reading WEED VOTE YES
A poster in favour of a ‘yes’ vote in the 2020 referendum. (Photo: Getty)

While at a work BBQ at her boss’ house, a young receptionist is offered a weed cookie to go with her dessert. After a horrible night as a teen that started with a cough-inducing bucket bong and ended with hours of semi-paralysis and paranoia, she has been too scared to touch the stuff since. Seeing her hesitation, the party host explains that consuming precisely dosed edibles takes the randomness out of consuming weed, so is a much safer and more enjoyable way to experiment. He cuts the cookie (that the packet says contains 10mg of THC) into quarters, telling his guests that in his experience, 2.5mg gives the same level of buzz as drinking a margarita. 

Under prohibition, recreational cannabis is furtively grown and sold by dealers in plain baggies or tinfoil with no specifications given around quality or strength. Since legalisation has occurred in North America, all retail cannabis products go through stringent measuring and quality-control checks, and have the THC content clearly labelled on the packaging. This means that people consuming these products have more control over how high they get, kinda like counting drinks. 

Just like ciggies here, cannabis packaging in North America also comes with its own health warnings about the possible adverse effects of consumption. For example, “Toxic and carcinogenic chemicals found in tobacco smoke such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons, aromatic amines, and N-heterocyclics are also found in cannabis smoke”. Because ingesting the stuff via food products is a slower way of delivering the chemicals to the brain, packets of edibles in Massachusetts also warn that “the impairment effects of edible products might be delayed by two hours or more”, so that new users know to wait a while before chowing down on more, and are therefore less likely to overdo it.

After buying a pre-rolled joint of Te Puke Thunder from his neighbourhood dispensary, a new retiree sits with his wife in a sunny spot on their front porch ready to get blitzed for the very first time. Despite being teenagers in the 70s, neither have tried the wacky baccy because they came from conservative families and were always scared of getting arrested. Now that the legal ramifications have disappeared and they have both the time and disposable income, they are curious to do a little experimentation of their own.

Access to legal weed is likely to boost the number of people using it, at least initially, with many of those who had previously abstained taking the opportunity to give it a go. According to the 2023 Canadian Cannabis Survey the percentage of people who used cannabis in the last year increased from 22% to 27% in the five years since legalisation. Modelling for the Ministry of Justice predicts that the number of users would increase here by 25%, which in real terms amounts to around 144,00 more New Zealanders dabbling in doobies. But based on what happened in the US, this same modelling predicts that the initial surge in numbers would shrink back to pre-legalisation levels after three to five years. Different demographics respond differently though, with early adopters Colorado and Washington showing that use of cannabis increased in older age groups but fell for young people. 

A 16-year-old girl tries using her fake ID to buy some weed from her local cannabis store, but is turned away by the shopkeeper, who can tell it has been tampered with. She used to smoke buds with her friends every weekend, but since legalisation the tinny house down the street has stopped selling, so it has been harder to get their hands on any. She’s not that fussed though. Ever since she overheard her Auntie talking about trying a weed brownie at book club, it doesn’t seem as cool.

Because of their developing brains, adolescents are more vulnerable to the risks associated with cannabis use. The NZ Drug Foundation’s 2022 State of the Nation Report shows that in Aotearoa, almost a quarter of 15-24 year olds report having used marijuana in the past year, and what is particularly worrisome is that 7.6% of that age group use cannabis weekly.

Canada introduced an age limit of 18 for purchasing cannabis, and after their first year of legalisation, Stats Canada reported that the percentage of 15-17 year olds who had used cannabis in the previous three month period reduced by almost half, because government-run dispensaries would not sell to underage users and there were fewer options for buying off the black market. On their website, the NZ Drug Foundation also attributes this decline to the fact that bringing cannabis out of the shadows of counter-culture makes it less appealing to young people, who may experiment with it as an act of rebellion. Other data from Stats Canada supports this theory as those in the 18-24 age group, who were able to buy marijuana legally, showed no increase in use in the first year after legalisation.

The effects of legalisation on user numbers is continuing to evolve though, with more recent research from the Canadian Cannabis Survey 2023 showing that past year use in the 16-19 year old  age category went up from 36% to 43% in the period 2018-2023. It is encouraging to note however that daily or almost daily use went down for that age group in the same post-legalisation period. 

If weed was legalised, it would be easier to control your dose. (Photo: Getty)

A factory-worker in his 30s is filling in a new patient form at a GP clinic, when he comes to the sections about his drug and alcohol consumption. He has always lied to his doctor about his weed habit, but now that it is legal he feels comfortable fessing up to having a few hits of a bong every morning and night. During his consultation, she talks him through the health risks associated with prolonged pot smoking, and offers to get him help if he ever decides he would like to cut back or quit.

Currently, in New Zealand, only a small proportion of people seek help to manage their cannabis use for fear of condemnation, judgement or arrest, and there are very few resources available for the treatment of cannabis-related harms for those who do. 

Prolonged cannabis use is associated with respiratory problems and an increased risk of stroke and heart disease, and according to the 2020 New Zealand Illicit Drug Harm Index, was a contributing factor in 124 premature deaths the previous year. Even on the less extreme end, baseline data for the Ministry of Justice shows that we have over 1,100 hospitalisations each year related to cannabis consumption, placing an estimated almost $15 million annual fiscal burden on our struggling health care system. While that same forecasting expects an increase of 300 hospitalisations in the first year post-legalisation from the temporary spike in cannabis users, it predicts that in the medium term (3-5 years) health outcomes would revert back to pre-legal scenarios. 

Because regular users are those at higher risk of adverse physical and mental health outcomes, looking at daily use rates can be a predictor of increasing problems from a public-health perspective. The Canadian Cannabis Survey 2023 shows that daily use rates across all age groups initially rose after legalisation, but have since gone down to significantly lower levels than under prohibition. 

Weed businesses could be thriving by now.

A group of young guys have gathered in a mate’s garage for a Friday night video game marathon, and as the Playstation loads, someone pulls out a bag of hash. While most of the guys have a toke on the pipe as it goes around, one of the group politely declines and reaches for a Lion Red from the swappa crate instead. He has a family history of drug-induced psychosis, so doesn’t want to take any chances with his own mental health. 

Mental health has long been a major concern for weed smokers, with long-term daily use linked to anxiety, depression and diminished brain function (think of the ‘duh’ stereotype commonly associated with stoners). In the year spanning 2022/2023, Te Whatu Ora/Health NZ reports that there were 714 hospitalisations in New Zealand for mental and behavioural disorders from cannabinoids, and according to the Ministry of Justice report, in the 15-20 year old age group, the incidence of mental health conditions was more than double for users of cannabis when compared to their drug-free cohort.

Before cannabis was legalised in Canada, there were concerns about large increases in cannabis-induced psychosis and schizophrenia, but a study out of University of British Columbia found that three years into legalisation in the provinces of Alberta and Ontario, these concerns had not materialised, with the caveat that more research is needed. 

An older woman makes herself a cup of tea using marijuana leaf inside an infuser to help relieve the nerve pain she experiences from Multiple Sclerosis. When medicinal marijuana was first legalised, she briefly got it on prescription, but couldn’t afford the $300 monthly price tag. She opted to get it from a green fairy instead, because she felt that the therapeutic benefits outweighed the risks of prosecution. 

Now that it is available to buy over-the-counter, she can use the drug without fear of repercussions, and no longer needs to ration it. 

People with chronic conditions often fall through the cracks of the mainstream medical system, but increasing numbers in New Zealand swear by the anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties of medicinal marijuana. Despite the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme coming into effect here in 2020, The NZ Drug Foundation estimates that 94% of the almost 267,000 people using cannabis for medicinal purposes are still accessing it through the black market. Because of the rigorous quality standards attached to pharmaceutical-grade cannabis, very few products have been approved – and despite being available on prescription, pharmaceutical-grade cannabis remains unsubsidised, making it inaccessible for many.

Although not necessarily encouraged by the medical profession, legalisation would see a cheaper, lower-grade recreational product easily available to medicinal users, and may eventually bring down the price of the pharmaceutical stuff as well. Another side effect of legalisation is normalisation, and more patients may feel comfortable asking their doctors to try it. 

The bell rings in the classroom as a high school health teacher writes on the whiteboard “What is THC?” and “What does potency mean?”. Rather than the “thou shalt not” model of drug education she was raised on, the new curriculum recognises that students live in a world where drugs exist. It also recognises that providing more information on the effects of cannabis means young people are empowered to make informed decisions based on health and wellbeing, rather than just its legal status. 

Without the stigma of prohibition, it becomes easier to educate the public about the risks and harms associated with cannabis use. The Canadian government has used tax revenue from cannabis to invest heavily in education and evidence-based, harm-reduction campaigns with preventative programmes aimed at everyone including school-age children. Similar to responsible drinking campaigns, the Government of Canada website recommends a “start low and go slow” approach; ie waiting to feel the effects of cannabis before taking more to reduce the chance of overconsumption. 

Education campaigns may be partly responsible for young people delaying experimenting with the drug with the most recent Canadian Cannabis Survey showing that the average age of starting cannabis use went up from 18.9 years in 2018 to 20.8 years in 2023. It might not sound like much, but the risk of developing cannabis use disorder is greater for people who begin to use it before their 18th birthday, so even waiting a year or two could make a difference to future outcomes. 

Here in New Zealand, modelling for the Ministry of Justice predicts that post-legalisation interventions like education programmes and public messaging could eventually see total cannabis users fall by up to 5%, and daily users by 10%.

Dispensaries that are common in overseas jurisdictions could be dotted all over our towns. (Photo: Getty)

As a ska band at a summer concert play their final notes, a young couple start walking back to their car. The boyfriend is the designated driver so has purposefully stayed sober all day, but did accept a drag on a weed vape being passed around the crowd a few hours earlier. He’s driven stoned in the past and is pretty sure the effects would have worn off by now, but remembers the horrible drugged-driving ad he just saw on TV with the famous tagline, “If you toke and drive, you’re a bloody idiot.” He decides to order them an Uber instead.

With legalisation comes fears about increases in drugged drivers endangering lives on the road. While the stereotype of a wasted driver is one of hypervigilance and crawling along the motorway far below the speed limit, the problem with driving after using cannabis is that reaction times are also slower. Around 100 people are killed on New Zealand roads each year where a driver was found to have drugs other than alcohol in their system. While the Ministry of Transport can’t narrow down their figures to a specific drug, cannabis is the most commonly detected substance in drivers involved in crashes after alcohol, and two-thirds of pot smokers here admit to driving under the influence. 

Given the complexities around accurately correlating THC levels in the bloodstream to impairment, it is not surprising that any post-legalisation changes to drugged driving in Canada have been inconclusive. Early research out of University of British Columbia didn’t see a significant rise in the number of presentations to ER from traffic injuries in Ontario and Alberta, but according to the CBC some provinces saw a significant increase in drug-impaired driving charges, partly attributed to new testing measures, laws and enforcement powers.  Anecdotally, Public Safety Canada found that education campaigns have been successful in changing perceptions around the dangers of driving after cannabis use, with an increasing number of respondents agreeing that cannabis use impairs driving abilities, and self reported incidences of drugged driving on the decline, 

A young father-of-two is packing for an upcoming fishing weekend up north. A mate has given him a bunch of edibles to bring, and he stashes the extra packet of colourful lollies behind the canned goods on the top shelf of the pantry where he thinks his young children won’t be able to reach them. But he underestimates both their appetite for sweet treats and their ability to climb, and a few days later his wife finds their four-year-old clutching an empty gummy packet while appearing disoriented and lethargic. 

In the year spanning 2019/2020, there were a total of 15 hospitalisations for poisonings by cannabis derivatives in children under 14 in New Zealand. In severe cases, children who ingest cannabis can experience hallucinations, abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, but most are discharged from hospital 24 hours later, and so far there have been no recorded deaths from cannabis overdose worldwide. 

Looking overseas, US poison centres receive higher rates of calls about adverse exposure to cannabis products in states where weed is legal, and once edibles were allowed in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, the rate of paediatric hospitalisations from cannabis poisoning more than doubled. Regulators responded with the introduction of child-proof packaging and a maximum dose of 10mg of THC per package, but accidental poisonings continue to be an issue. In Ontario, ads on the Toronto subway warn parents that kids get into everything, and advise that edibles are stored away from other food. The province of Quebec has gone further, introducing restrictions banning edibles that appeal to young people, like candies and chocolate.

Cannabis would be carefully regulated and licensed.

A group of students are walking into town surrounded by a haze of smoke from the spliff they are sharing. Rounding a corner, they come across two police officers, who pull them aside and issue infringement notices for smoking cannabis in public. Two of them are gutted by the slap on the wrist, but a girl whose older brother was arrested for possession years earlier is grateful that under the new law they walk away with only a fine.

Under New Zealand’s Misuse of Drug Act, possession of cannabis has a maximum penalty of three months in jail and/or up to a $500 fine, but over the last decade, the regulation has morphed into something resembling “soft decriminalisation”, with police encouraged to take a health-centred approach rather than prosecuting users. Even so, the NZ Drug Foundation reports that 189 people were sent to prison for low-level offences such as cannabis possession or use in 2020/2021. The problem with a discretionary approach is that even when accounting for higher rates of use, Māori are more likely to be apprehended, charged and sent to prison than Pākehā. 

The other area of concern is the number of people entering the youth justice system due to cannabis offences – 913 in 2020 – with 90% of drug charges against young people being for possession offences. Even low-level cannabis convictions can limit future life options, stopping people from going overseas and acting as a barrier to meaningful employment, and for most young people, the harm of being brought into the criminal justice system will far outweigh the harms of having experimented with cannabis. 

The Washington Post reported that in the first year after legalisation in Washington DC, marijuana possession arrests fell from 1,840 to just 32.  Projections for the Ministry of Justice estimate that after legalisation, 15% of cannabis in New Zealand would still come via the black market, so some policing will still be required, but that 3-5 years post-legalisation, there would be 1,200 fewer charges and around 1,000 fewer convictions related to cannabis each year, with the fiscal savings of $11 million per year in justice and correction costs alone. Back in 2013, the New Zealand Treasury estimated that a change in the legal status of marijuana would reduce spending on drug enforcement here by $180million.

The sales assistant at KIWEED dispensary flips over the CLOSED sign in the window before shutting the roller doors and tallying up the day’s extensive sales. It has been yet another busy weekend shift, with a steady stream of customers forking out their hard-earned cash for good, quality, legal marijuana products. He used to be a small-time dealer, supplying his friends with 50 bags as a side hustle, but as he files his timesheet, he is grateful for a legit job as a budtender which gives him a regular paycheck.

Since legalisation, thousands of cannabis retail outlets have popped up across Canada, and despite a slow rollout and the vastness of the country, Stats Canada reported that within a year of legalisation, 45% of Canucks lived within 10km of a dispensary. To serve our smaller population, projections for the Ministry of Justice estimate that 420 retail businesses and licensed premises would be required, and that 5,000 full-time equivalent positions would be generated across growers, processors and retail stores alone. On top of these fairly obvious roles, it is fascinating to note that the North America recreational cannabis industry created a whole raft of new employment opportunities like lab technicians, specialist brand managers and boutique brownie bakers. At the time of writing, LinkedIn had 350 cannabis related vacancies advertised in Canada!

Cannabis has proved to be great for the economy, not only by creating jobs but as a massive money spinner as well. According to Forbes magazine, in Colorado’s first ten years of legalisation, the state surpassed $10billion in sales, with billions in marijuana tax dollars going to the government, which used its lucrative new revenue stream for youth drug prevention, school maintenance and construction, and affordable housing. 

Homegrown cannabis

Here, under prohibition, illegal weed remains an untapped market. Projections for the Ministry of Justice estimated that the government could generate $923 million each year from licence fees, corporate and income tax, excise tax and GST from the product itself. If you take away the cost to run the required regulatory agency, it would still allow an annual cash injection of $896 million, much of which could be earmarked for education, health and social services to reduce consumption and cannabis-related harm (as per the government’s pre-referendum objectives), with plenty left over to spare.

Returning to the birthday girl, whose party is in full swing, she is feeling relaxed and a little silly after a glass of bubbles and a couple of the THC-spiked Pineapple Lumps. Some of her more straight-laced friends are dancing, and there is laughter erupting from the people crammed into the kitchen, but she notices there are a few guests in the comfy chairs in the corner who haven’t moved a muscle in ages. 

While she has long offered boozy cocktails as the social lubricant of choice, tonight’s edibles bar has gone down well with people from all aspects of her life, including her Boomer parents, high-flying colleagues and super-fit friends from running club. Even those people she knows voted against legalisation seemed to be OK with the presence of cannabis products, even if they didn’t choose to have any themselves. 

As she cuts up the birthday cake and hands it around, she reflects that what seemed like a question of morality back in 2020 now seems to be more a question of preference. 

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