the hot air in cannabis politics

The cannabis referendum is several weeks away, and the lobbyist scene has been heating up. The NZ Drug Foundation is advertising in prime television slots with its “Yes On Our Terms” campaign, promoting a Kiwi-designed approach to tackling cannabis reform. Similarly, Make It Legal NZ is campaigning for a “strong YES” on the referendum. These two organisations are arguably the current major promoters of the referendum. 

On the other side of the spectrum, Family First is pushing their “Nope to Dope” campaign, an effort of several years, decrying the immorality of a cannabis industry from the rigid comforts of a “Christian” worldview. We also have the New Zealand Medical Association (which bills itself as a group representing doctor’s interests) who denounced cannabis in May 2019 claiming it causes significant health and social harms. The NZMA are not lobbyists in the fullest sense, but they are weighing in on the referendum quite publicly. Yet, they failed to find the time to provide examples in their five-paragraph press release, distinctly sparse for an issue so important. Dr Kate Baddock, chairwoman of the NZMA, has also rubbished the claim that “medicinal cannabis will be easier to access” which has been put forward by pro-cannabis groups including in the NZ Drug Foundation’s televised campaign. Certainly, blurring the lines between recreational and medical cannabis in a political context is a messy approach, but arguing the difference between the two in “real life” is a boring matter of red tape if not semantics. A layperson might misunderstand what the NZMA is, and wrongly assume that all Kiwi doctors are against cannabis. The reality could not be further from the truth. Indeed, the NZMA are no stranger to being criticised for the messages they send out, which are sometimes written as though they want to define the consensus of an entire profession. As recently as 2019, eighteen doctors, surgeons, and medical professionals signed a letter and sent it to Baddock after the NZMA took an archaic position against euthanasia (including Dame Margaret Sparrow, no less). They compared the NZMA to anti-vaxxers who were promoting personal beliefs rather than evidence-based views. This is not to say that the NZMA are always flawed in the positions they take, but one has to question the idea of endeavouring to speak on behalf of all doctors – it is bound to result in disharmony. Their cannabis position is shamelessly ill-conceived. 

Family First predict that cannabis will become the new Big Tobacco and that cannabis causes suicidal ideation, among other outrageous claims. Someone at Family First apparently got overly excited in setting a website up and forgot to read the Cannabis Control Bill, because the proposed legislation will prevent advertising, regulate product and sales, and it explicitly makes an effort to curb a reckless capitalistic approach. You can grow your own plants and you do not have to smoke it.  I am not seeing where “big tobacco” comes into it. Point two is far more serious, but to date we are lacking credible evidence to show that cannabis commonly causes suicidal ideation or that rates of suicide increase in populations where it is legalised. The research claiming otherwise is questionable at best, unable to distinguish between people who generally use recreational drugs to cope with depression from cannabis as a cause of suicidal ideation. They also demonstrate dubious processes for collecting sample data. Note that historically it has been in the interest of a cannabis user not to disclose their use for various reasons: social stigma, legal repercussions, etc. This is partly why studies on cannabis use have been poor to date. 

Enough about the meddlers! What about the major political parties? You might be surprised to learn that our top political parties have mostly avoided addressing recreational cannabis. Presently, only Green and The Opportunities Party have a dedicated cannabis policy. TOP are “health-focused” and want to avoid the disasters seen in overseas cannabis markets that were poorly regulated. Among those promoting this policy include Abe Gray, who jumped ship from the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis party to join TOP when Gareth Morgan was still trying to build the numbers. Gray also co-founded the Whakamana Cannabis Museum which formerly operated in Dunedin and Christchurch and was meant to have re-emerged in Wellington for the referendum. Over in the Green corner, their cannabis policy has a similar case for an “evidence-based” model that seeks to take the best of what has worked overseas with all the standard restrictions, including no public smoking and a limit on how many plants one can grow. Chlöe Swarbrick has been representing this issue for Green for some time now including openly discussing the issue in radio interviews and fighting for it in debates, including one hosted by BudSoc (a political student club here at UC) available to watch online via Facebook. The Green’s conception of cannabis reform is essentially what Labour has had to work with, or more specifically, Andrew Little who has had the task of handling the Cannabis Control Bill. Both Little and Ardern had been shady about their own positions on cannabis, although Little has since said he will vote in favour of the bill. Labour has played the boring centrist move of going to a referendum so Kiwis can decide, allowing Labour to avoid touching the issue too directly. It could get awkward if the referendum is lost now the case for harm reduction has been well made, but interestingly, Little has said that a NO vote would be the end of the matter. As a political manoeuvre it means avoiding any more left-wing baggage for Labour, a party that is hoping to nab some of the National voters who are leaping from National’s sinking ship. When I started drafting ideas for this article, Todd Muller was captain. As various National MPs disappear in the icy water, Judith Collins seems to have won the impromptu game of musical chairs to the surprise of nobody. Whatever the case, a National government is not going to help the cannabis cause. National has been (and still is) very much against cannabis reform. Muller was an improvement over Bridges in that he would have at least honoured the referendum. Bridges infamously said he would not, or in other words, that the views of Kiwis did not matter, as was his arrogance. Collins, on the other hand, has been more complex about the issue. She has historically held mixed views on cannabis, voting against a medicinal cannabis bill in the late 2000s, but more recently acknowledging that cannabis laws will probably change — although that is a far cry from endorsement. She has since made it clear she is against the referendum passing, and in the process, she attempted to pressure Ardern into getting off the fence about her own views. In a 2018 interview she misleadingly conflated cannabis and commercial synthetic cannabis (synthetic cannabis is dangerous, artificially produced and does not contain the cannabis plant). 

We can expect a misleading campaign against cannabis from National; playing loose with the facts seems to be their campaigning style this year. The drug reform portfolio ended up a hot potato, bouncing from the hands of Amy Adams who couldn’t decide if she was retired or not, and into the lap of Nick Smith, who probably should be. Smith, a man whose legacy includes voting against euthanasia, civil unions, gay marriage, and voting for a bill attempting to define marriage as between “a man and a woman only”, has actually done more than try to stop humans showing love for each other.  He also made the news this year for being the first person in nearly 40 years to be escorted out of parliament by the Serjeant-at-Arms for misconduct whilst shouting “what sort of Nazi establishment is running the place?!”. So, with that in mind, one might not be surprised to learn he is not a natural ally to the cause. In a statement that he authorised on his official Facebook page, Smith had the nerve to imply a link between cannabis and violence, suicide, child abuse, and offer a solution in the form of aggressive policing. One must ask about the experienced politician: is Smith ignorant about cannabis, or is he incentivised to mislead? Either way it will be another one to add to his resume under the heading “things National was on the wrong side of history for.” He recently participated in a televised debate with Swarbrick and seemed scripted but underprepared, out of touch, and generally disinterested in the issue of cannabis. In contrast Swarbrick was passionate and dissolved his argument quite convincingly. It is worth watching if you have not already, but in a nutshell, Smith was mostly relying on the idea that cannabis reform has had mixed results overseas. This point doesn’t hold given New Zealand is not taking a carbon copy of overseas cannabis law and factoring in what has and has not worked overseas is literally a point made on the Greens’ website. I could only laugh as Swarbrick looked down the camera, exasperated like a character from The Office, as Smith went around in circles looking uncomfortable at times. 

Meanwhile one might be surprised to find an ally of sorts in NZ First, a party traditionally seen as conservative, held in high regard wherever there is a Zimmer frame. Winston Peters openly supported the referendum, and NZ First acknowledges the failing of drug prohibition in general. That said, Peters does not support a YES vote himself, and so the party’s conception of drug reform is presumably less palatable than what is on the table today. Although NZ First can hardly be celebrated as an advocate for cannabis, they are at least showing support for the concept of drug reform and that deserves credit of a kind. The prohibitionist angle is demonstrably ineffective, and it is increasingly hard to take politicians seriously when they deny this. It could be said that this approach is more honest than Ardern and Little, who have been somewhat obscure about whether they endorse recreational cannabis, but it is surely easier to play this angle than any other. I am sympathetic about the political game that cannabis has become, and I will not claim to understand the complexities and costs that are involved in endorsing cannabis. For a country that enjoys a reputation for being thoughtful and progressive on major issues, New Zealand is lagging behind on cannabis and it’s getting embarrassing. Even in the United States, cannabis reform is not the exciting, controversial position it used to be. People are beginning to agree; cannabis reform, despite playing out as a left vs right fiasco, really ought to appeal to progressive and conservative minds alike. I should disclose my own position on cannabis at this point if it is not already clear: I will vote YES on the referendum mainly on a harm reduction basis, but I certainly like the idea that I could access a safer alternative to alcohol. I worry about the risks and shadiness regarding drug dealers, handling product that may be poorly grown or contaminated (mould, gardening chemicals, etc.) as well as risking disproportionate criminal charges for an activity that is reasonably safe and somewhat overblown. There is an old joke about cannabis being disappointing when you finally get to try it, thanks to how overhyped it is, often mis-portrayed as mind-destroying and very psychedelic. To that I say the last summer of my “research” on this issue was a disappointing but relaxing one.  

The practical case for cannabis is clear when you consider how prohibition has failed to stop cannabis use, is wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money, and means that people with cannabis use disorders fear seeking help. The moral case is less clear, but it seems to me that recreational drug use is assumed to be immoral across the board, based on an instinctive sense rather than a good moral case. We need to be smarter than that. The September election is extraordinary, not only for the cannabis referendum, but also for the euthanasia referendum and the shifting landscape of our political parties. It is one thing to consider the message of lobbyist groups and political parties, but as they fight with each other to sway minds and raise donation money, we have more important concerns as people. We should be thinking about harm reduction in our communities, improving the welfare of Kiwis, and considering our future economic opportunities. This is our post COVID-19 reality, after all. Cannabis reform ticks every box.  

Whether you agree or disagree with cannabis use is not the issue. It will continue to happen no matter what the outcome of the referendum isThis is a question of if we should do something useful about cannabis, or let it fester under failed prohibition and in the hands of gangsOrganisations like Family First and National do a disservice to Kiwis, pushing a point of view that is poorly evidenced and deeply cynical towards cannabis users. On reflection, one ought to expert a certain bitterness over cannabis from organisations who still struggle with cut-and-dried issues like same-sex marriage.  

We ought to listen to all sides of the political spectrum but do so with great attention to the details and evidence provided, because all is not equal in the mess of misleading ads and dishonest social media posts.

Ultimately, going out and voting is the most important part of all.

Come 2021when Kiwis have voted YES for smarter cannabis control, they’ll be nothing Family First can do to stop me from smoking all the joints I want at all the gay weddings I can gate-crash, so help me God.

By Josh Liddle