Convos with chloe on cannabis

Chloe Swarbrick, a 26-year-old politician and member of the Green Party, is taking the lead in advocating for you to say YES to the upcoming referendum on whether to legalise the sale, use, production and possession of cannabis. We chatted recently about her WHY. 

Working as a politician who argues loudly on such controversial issues is something which takes a great amount of courage and a strong backbone. Chloe mentioned she knows of many fellow politicians who agree with her stance on cannabis yet they do not speak out, “unwilling to sacrifice what they perceive as their career in order to do the right thing.” Chloe said that this is “an absolutely glaring and awful indictment on the current state of politics.” She has chosen to instead act with her heart on the sleeve, championing what she believes is right and what works.   

Chloe first wanted to point out that the conversation we should be having surrounding cannabis, is not about the substance itself, but what is the best possible regulatory regime to approach cannabis.  

“Everyone wants to have these conversations about how harmful these drugs are, but nobody seems to be willing to have the discussion about how we can best minimise that harm to in turn increase community wellbeing,” she said. 

Of all the illicit substances consumed in New Zealand, cannabis is the most widely used. In fact, around 80% of the population will have tried cannabis by the time they are 20 years old. No other illegal substance comes close to matching this statistic. 

Chloe noted that it’s wide use consequently has led to a wide range of issues. Firstly, she said that there is no strictly applied rule of law for how the criminalisation of possession, use and sale of cannabis is applied. From that 80% statistic, we should be seeing 80% of New Zealanders holding a cannabis conviction, but obviously this is not the case meaning there are clear discrepancies in how the law is applied. For example, Chloe said that around 1,300 Maori people are convicted each year for lower-level cannabis offences. 

The implications of having a cannabis conviction are wide ranging. They impede one’s ability to travel, as well as one’s potential to get a job, apply for scholarships and receive higher education.  

Because of these discrepancies and implications of convictions, Chloe argued it is clear that complete prohibition is simply not working for cannabis. The 150 page document of draft law she has been working on for the past two and a half years, with the help of the Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, is the result of Chloe hoping to devise a better way to reduce cannabis harm.  

In response to those who argue that legalising cannabis will open the floodgates for the legalisation of other substances and instead strongly argue for continued prohibition, Chloe said, “that argument is regularly raised as a red herring to obfuscate the debate.” She believes that there are “far better legal approaches,” which should be applied to most illegal substances. Chloe said, “Prohibitionists are unwilling to engage in the discussion about how you can better regulate all substances.” 

Chloe has also been working to reform the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. She helped to amend section seven which originally penalised people for usage. Now when police want to prosecute someone for holding a small amount of substance on them, they have to prove that it is in the public interest to prosecute and that the person would not benefit from a therapeutic approach. 

She has been focusing much of her attention recently on section 12, working with the likes of drug testing organisation Know Your Stuff. This section stands as a massive impediment to drug checking services; it criminalises anyone who allows their premises to be used for drug use. Festivals and event hosts have been wary to allow essential drug checking services at their events, afraid of breaching the act.  In New South Wales, Australia, laws equivalent to section 12 have directly lead to the deaths of approximately a dozen young people, all because festival promoters were not able to host drug checking services on their premises. 

Contributor questions: 

Do you think psilocybin should be a glass A substance when it fails to tick the three boxes required – (It’s non-toxic, non-addictive, and has massive medical potential)? 

Chloe has been involved with New Zealand’s first modern trials investigating the medical potential of psilocybin, having helped researchers from the University of Auckland receive ethics approval from the Ministry of Health. She traced psilocybin’s current illegality to the war of drugs, where an “ad hoc kind of mythology was poured down people’s throats to the extent we have not been able to build an evidence base which is actually reflective of where modern day medicine should be.” 

“I can say very frankly that if you trace the history of the war on drugs, the rationale behind the way that we have chosen to make some substances illicit and to regulate others, is primarily a matter of moral panic,” Chloe said. 

She brought up Richard Nixon, one of the leading figureheads behind the war on drugs rhetoric. This “war” led to a United Nations agreement which criminalises the people who use substances rather than the substances themselves. In the early 2000s, a prior advisor to Nixon came forward and confessed that arguments for criminalising most drugs were primarily used to incite anger against those who were involved in the civil rights movement and who were protesting against America’s involvement in the Vietnam war.  

Chloe pointed out that one of the most harmful substances to man – as indicated by the World Health Organisation – alcohol, is not regulated in the beneficial ways that it should be. She said, “Ironically, the kind of proposal that I’m putting forward for cannabis is something I would love to be applied to alcohol. If we were to remove the sponsorship and advertising for alcohol, we would massively reduce the normalisation and glamourisation of that substance.” 

Is using drugs a moral failing on the user? 

In response to this contributor question, Chloe firstly said, “I think that you will find it really hard to find one human being who is of adult age and has never used a drug. That is, if you are to define what drugs are as a mind altering or body state altering substance. Different drugs can also include the pharmaceuticals, alcohol and tobacco which we regulate, and obviously there is an even higher likelihood that most adults have used those. Then there are every day drugs, like sugar and caffeine. If we are to genuinely talk about reducing harm, you can apply different levels of regulation to any given substance.”   

In response to the arguments of morality, she said, it shouldn’t come into play when comparing people who are choosing to use illicit drugs compared to legal ones – when there can be no fine line drawn between them, all having the ability to be abused in some way. 

She brought up those who argue for prohibition again and said that they “really need to reflect on the fact that they have never been criminalised for the use of those substances.”  

In a perfect world, do you think people use drugs? 

Chloe turned this question around and answered, “In a perfect world, people wouldn’t be addicted to substances, they wouldn’t abuse substances, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they wouldn’t use them.”  

“What you find in the chronology of mankind, is that we have always used different substances to alter our state of mind. I think that most people would find it really hard to say that in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have alcohol and effectively you have a situation where we could argue whether there is anybody on Earth that has a healthy relationship with alcohol,” she said. 

How can we as students talk to our families about the cannabis referendum? 

A useful way to first open the conversation is to start from a place of shared values. A clear value is acknowledging that cannabis can cause harm. Chloe argues that legalisation of cannabis is a way to ensure younger people have less access to cannabis because currently, drug dealers do not check ID. She also argued it’s a way to ensure that adults who are using cannabis are doing so in an informed way; legalisation is a way to educate people on the potential adverse effects of using too much and the dangers of it being laced with other substances with potency and quality controls in place.  

Chloe recommends asking your family to think about whether they have used cannabis themselves or whether they know people who have used cannabis. Then ask them whether they are comfortable with any of those people ending up with a criminal conviction and how that would have impacted them. This leads to discussion on criminalisation of users. 

Chloe pointed up arguments that will often come up when discussing the referendum: “there’s the reality that if you simply decriminalise people who use the substance, you still have massive problems with the supply side of things. And actually, arguably, if you only decriminalize, you then create a perverse incentive for continued exploitation of particularly vulnerable communities to make a quick buck from the black market.” In response to those arguments, Chloe said – to avoid the latter issues happening, you have to take control of the supply chain and you do that through regulation. “What we’re talking about here is not about whether we endorse or support a substance, we’re talking about the best way to approach that substance.” 

At the end of the day, “cannabis exists, the referendum does not invent cannabis, it simply creates control for a market that presently is the most harmful of all available realities,” she said. So make sure you express your views in the upcoming cannabis referendum. 

By Samantha Mythen