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A German youth activist calls for the legalization of cannabis on August 13, 2016 in Berlin. (Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
A German youth activist calls for the legalization of cannabis on August 13, 2016 in Berlin. (Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyAugust 31, 2020

Yes on cannabis will prove we’re world leaders on progressive policy – again

A German youth activist calls for the legalization of cannabis on August 13, 2016 in Berlin. (Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
A German youth activist calls for the legalization of cannabis on August 13, 2016 in Berlin. (Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The cannabis referendum is not just about creating a fairer Aotearoa, writes the Drug Foundation’s Ross Bell. It’s also another chance to prove to the world that we know how to lead on progressive, health-based policy. 

Since Auckland moved back into level three more than a fortnight ago we’ve been reminded how fearful the coronavirus can make us feel. Fear drives a lot of our actions – but it’s a terrible foundation for public health policy. That is true of Covid-19 and it’s true of drug law reform, too.

Rational, evidence-based policy is what’s guided New Zealand through the coronavirus crisis so far, and it’s what will get us through this second wave. We’re lucky enough to be led by a government guided by science when it comes to the pandemic, who have been responsive and agile in responding to new evidence as it emerges (like the changing opinions about masks).

The world has recognised us for our efforts, and we have the chance to be recognised again at the cannabis referendum this election.

In a webinar co-hosted recently by the Drug Foundation and the Helen Clark Foundation the case was made by former political leaders and experts from Australia, Colombia, Canada and New Zealand that a yes vote in this year’s cannabis referendum is not just about getting things right here in Aotearoa. It’s also another chance to prove that we know how to lead when it comes to progressive policy.

Geoff Gallop, the former premier of Western Australia, points out we can’t let fear and prejudice influence our drug laws. Gallop continues to campaign for drug reform in Australia after decriminalising personal cannabis use in WA in 2004, a move which was later repealed despite no increase in use or drug harm in the state.

There are those who believe that drug laws should remain locked in time even in the face of overwhelming evidence that prohibition isn’t working, Gallop says. They fear change, and are blind to the negative social consequences borne from obsolete policy – like young people, and especially young Māori men, becoming entangled in the justice system for low level drug offences.

Progressive thinkers on drug policy have “complexity and nuance, pragmatism, understating of human nature, and rights-based arguments” on their side, Gallop says. “We have to be advocates for a better society.” What Gallop also found in WA was that the public was ready for change – and when politicians don’t act on that, cynicism creeps in.

Colombian police officers display packs containing three tons of marihuana found on a truck near Pereira, Colombia 20 September 2007. (Photo: JJ BONILLA/AFP via Getty Images)

Former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, who also spoke at our webinar, agrees that the war on drugs and a fear-based approach has failed. Colombia has suffered enormously from prohibition, and for what? “We have paid the highest price in the war on drugs,” Santos says. “We have lost our best leaders, our best journalists, our best judges, our best police officers. We are still the biggest supplier of cocaine to the world.” The profit from that supply is seen entirely within the illegal market, by drug cartels.

The fact the illegal drug market is a globally interlinked issue means all countries need to move toward better policy, and New Zealand has the chance with the referendum to begin to play our part. Santos, who is now a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, says he faced serious opposition when he first suggested legalising cannabis in Colombia. But he asked his opponents: if your child was caught using cannabis, if they were suffering from addiction, would you rather they were taken to jail, or given support? They all said they would prefer support. “I said that is regulation. And they changed their minds. A hardline approach is very popular but it is completely ineffective.”

What is also ineffective – and in fact harmful to our social norms – is to have a law which is routinely ignored or flouted, and unevenly applied. Louise Arbour, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Canada says we have to move to a science-based approach to drug law. “In public policy it is critical we free ourselves from stereotypes and ideological positions and look at where we are.” It’s tempting to want to go straight to the criminal justice system, but an evidence-based system requires us to look at the benefits and costs of doing this and adjust our approach. “The harm caused by law enforcement, particularly in respect to personal use, cultivation and consumption of cannabis – there’s more harm caused by the law enforcement system than use,” Arbour says.

A year and a half since Canada legalised, the sky hasn’t fallen – in fact, use has remained steady and even fallen among younger users. Abour calls it “the non-event of the year”. Most importantly, the law is now simply fairer. Like in New Zealand, certain populations were more likely to face criminalisation for low level drug offences. “Bad laws, or laws that are unjust, widely disregarded, enforced in discriminatory fashions, erode the whole foundations of the rule of law.”

It’s that appeal to social justice that is driving former prime minister Helen Clark to push for a yes vote at the referendum, and it is what’s driven the Drug Foundation’s mission for three decades. Public health and social justice must be at the heart of drug law reform.

Clark, who spoke at the webinar, makes the point that cannabis already exists in New Zealand – this isn’t about whether or not to introduce a drug into our society, but about controlling and regulating something which as many as 80% of us have tried. She asks New Zealanders to “say no to a ridiculous law”. As she puts it, “we’re dealing with a commonly used drug which could be regulated in the same way we regulate alcohol and tobacco.”

We have a once in a generation chance to make our laws more just, and punch above our weight by implementing progressive drug policy. As Juan Manuel Santos says, “New Zealand is showing the world how to deal with the pandemic, and they can give us an example of how to deal with a problem which has been with us for many years.”

You can watch the whole webinar on the Drug Foundation’s website.

Keep going!