The hour of legalized cannabis is approaching

It started with the release of the report into “meth houses”, houses that had been contaminated by methamphetamine production. Within months debate about how New Zealand view drugs and what should be done about them had turned its sights on potentially legalizing cannabis. Now with a referendum set down for 2020, I believe that the hour of cannabis legalization is approaching.

There is, I believe, no escaping the fact that public support for cannabis being legalized is high and rising. A number of reasons for this exist, but I believe in part the driver for change comes down to some basic myths around cannabis and its effects being blown wide open:

  • The so called “War on Drugs”, both in New Zealand and abroad has failed/is failing
  • Numerous other substances such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and synthetic cannabis are much more potent than regular cannabis
  • Judicial systems in New Zealand and abroad have been clogging up with cases big and small
  • Medical marijuana – whilst its legal status is still in limbo – is no longer something that the police are actively prosecuting
  • If done properly, the tax take from legalizing marijuana would be substantial and could be used for funding treatment programmes

A nation wide referendum, scheduled to coincide with the 2020 General Election, and possibly the first in the world to ask such a question, will ask New Zealanders point blank whether they believe cannabis should be legalized.

Synthetic cannabis, also known as “Spice”, is illegal and supermarkets and dairies have been banned from selling legal highs since 2014. It has been linked to several deaths in New Zealand, people being dangerously spaced out with no idea or comprehension of their surroundings and is the cause of considerable public concern.

But for many people a few quite high profile deaths have highlighted the use of cannabis as a medicating agent against chronic pain. One of these cases was that of trade unionist Helen Kelly who was diagnosed with lung cancer, despite never having been a smoker. As a result of these high profile cases and in depth interviews conducted with those suffering, public support for the use of medicinal cannabis has rocketed.

Some opposition inevitably stems from conservative parts of society who are concerned about the effects of liberalizing drug laws and believe that it will have detrimental effects on society.

Some nations, notably the United States, which has long waged an expensive, often violent and now – ultimately – failing “war on drugs”, will also probably express concern. America though is starting to see that Federal law is no longer keeping up with changes in state laws, particularly in states like Colorado and Washington where restrictions on possession, distribution and manufacture of cannabis have been relaxed. A good example of this is in Washington State – my parents visited a friend whose daughter used to work in the first cannabis store in the state. The store had several restrictions on how it could operate, so that it would not be in breach of Federal law these included not being able to take credit cards; banking the earnings from the days business was a problem because banks are bound by Federal laws.

New Zealand is not the United States and there will need to be strict conditions on how we permit stores that sell cannabis to operate cometh the day when buying, selling and manufacturing cannabis  is no longer a criminal offence. But if a few common sense ones are followed such as, strictly 18+; all stores selling registered with authorities and only New Zealand grown product is permitted, maybe it will not be the catastrophe some believe.

Addressing the legalization of cannabis

When Helen Kelly, trade unionist, mother and advocate for medical cannabis passed away, there was a major surge in support for its decriminalization. Ms Kelly, who had been fighting cancer had become a visible icon of a debate about whether or not to legalize the narcotic, and had galvanized the nation.

Prior to that, support for cannabis reform had been lukewarm. Widely considered to be something only the Greens and Aotearoa Legalize Cannabis Party would contemplate, the pain suffered by Ms Kelly and her candid interviews with media, where she talked openly about her use of it to free her from pain did much to swing the mood of the nation. Politicians from across the spectrum began to have second thoughts about whether reform was such a bad thing.

Political parties are divided on how to tackle this subject as the run down below shows:

  • New Zealand First favours a referendum
  • National supports the status quo, in that the work being done by Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne is coming along just fine
  • A.C.T. is in favour of legalization, but does not believe the public support a repeal of the law
  • Aotearoa Legalize Cannabis Party supports full legalization for personal, medical, industrial and spiritual use
  • Conservative Party strongly opposes any legalization and will tighten penalties for anyone caught under the influence of or in possession of cannabis
  • Labour support legalizing medical cannabis, but does not think decriminalization will work
  • Greens support restricted  personal use and the legalization of medical cannabis
  • Maori Party has not in the past supported reform, but has softened its stance in the last few months, calling for a conversation about the issue
  • Mana support access to medical cannabis but would ban tobacco and not permit personal use

I personally want medical cannabis made immediately available, which should be reinforced by a law change. I further believe that a referendum should be held to determine what the public wish to have happen with regards to other personal use of marijuana. Before then there needs to be an inquiry into the pros and cons of legalization, that also examines what changes to the law would need to happen.

Green M.P. Julie Anne Genter has a Bill of Parliament currently before the House, which seems to have significant cross party support. It would address the need for medical cannabis to be legalized.

However, I harbour concerns based on the experience of synthetic cannabis that there is significant potential for abuse. In saying that, the current war on drugs has demonstrably failed and it is time for a new approach, based on evidence and not ones personal conviction. The cost of waging it is time, money and resources that could be better used to help addicts and go after the much more destructive drugs – cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and so forth.

So, bring on the medical cannabis reform. Whilst we are doing that, we can consider the extent to which we want to reform the law and what sort of outcomes are going to be acceptable.

Is the War on Drugs over?

Who would have thought it. The global prosecution of a war on drugs that spanned nations as diverse as the United States and Colombia, Afghanistan and Singapore is the subject of a United Nations review. It will examine how the “War on Drugs” is/not going and whether a change of tactics and thinking is needed.

The “War on Drugs” might have been fought with the best intentions. However as nations such as Colombia can attest, it has had absolutely devastating socio-economic consequences, cost the countries affected billions of dollars in revenue caused by investment being pulled, tens of thousands of deaths in Colombia alone and social scars that will take generations to heal. Therefore one can say it certainly was not executed as well as it could have been, and that failure to conduct it properly may in the end be the cause for people wondering why it is still being fought.

This is not to say that nations are just going to roll over and stop prosecuting criminal offences. Nor is it to say that further use of the death penalty in countries like Singapore and Indonesia is unlikely – on the contrary there are probably people on death row in those countries right this minute. It certainly is not to say that just because a United Nations panel is meeting that all drugs should suddenly be decriminalized. Far from it being the case – there are indeed drugs, such as methamphetamine, speed, cocaine that should permanently remain criminalized.

But there are also those that are marginal. And whose legal status should be at least in partial question – especially if there are known medical benefits that can be derived from (partial) decriminalization. This is particularly for drugs of a cannabinoid nature.

I have already argued for the decriminalization of medical marijuana following several compelling cases recently in New Zealand. In each of these cases it was obvious that conventional medication was not working, and that medical marijuana had been found to be a more humane solution to reduce the pain.

The money saved from changing course in this war will be substantial. The monetary value of reinvesting it in rehabilitation and researching medical usage of marijuana, might not be able to be fully calculated on the basis that for every dollar reinvested, the social gains that could be made by individuals genuinely wanting to wean themselves of their drug of choice are immense. For those addicts who understand that it involves a significant effort on both sides, the opportunity and the assistance achieving the removal of drugs from their lives should be considered an investment in their health and that of society at large. If it enables them to eventually live something approaching somewhat normal lives, contributing to the economy and maybe entering into a relationship, then it has to be a good thing.




Make medical marijuna legal

Last night on the Sunday programme, there was an article about medical marijuana and the case for it in New Zealand. It follows a series of high profile cases in recent years where people with crippling illnesses, some of a terminal nature have resorted to using marijuana as a pain reliever, challenging New Zealand laws.

I have no doubt that the day is coming when the case for legalizing medical marijuana will become too strong to ignore. Although some criticize the Government for its apparent slowness in progressing with legalization, there are several things that need to be done first:

  • Determine the best method of dispensing it – do we make generally available to all, or should medical marijuana be only available via prescription
  • Investigate how will the manufacture and distribution of medical marijuana before it reaches the point of sale be done
  • Investigate how should it be taxed – what is appropriate, as significant revenue could be generated

I cannot ignore cases of people needing a strong pain killer for dealing with terminal illnesses such as that which former trade union  spokesperson Helen Kelly is suffering. Although I am not sure about allegations that the late Martin Crowe or Sir Paul Holmes used marijuana for pain relief dealing with their late stage cancer, I would not be terribly surprised if either had given it consideration.

Overseas based researchers familiar with plant science and the biophysical conditions under which marijuana for medical purposes could be safely grown, think New Zealand needs to grow its own medical marijuana instead of relying on other countries. The Australian state of Tasmania for example already earns over N.Z$200 million per annum from its supply to the international market.

Internationally most of the European Union, many American states, Bangladesh, Canada, Montevideo, Colombia, Argentina Chile, Australia and North Korea have effectively legalized marijuana for medical purposes. In Colorado, and the Netherlands there have been well publicized law changes. In North Korea the availability of medicinal marijuana probably has nothing to do with any ethical or compassionate concerns so much as the country relies on the illicit drugs trade as a way of making money. Not all countries support legalized marijuana and indeed Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia among others have used the death penalty against anyone caught in possession of marijuana regardless of its intended purpose.

Time for medicinal cannabis


There was once a time when I thought all cannabis was bad. I thought it was a drug that simply did not need to exist, and when there were reports on the news showing officials destroying cannabis crops I was pleased. But over the years, as the availability of other pain killing medicines becomes an increasingly contentious issue for severe medical problems, I have begun to waiver.

I began to waiver after seeing stories of people who otherwise had no criminal record, being arrested and charged for cannabis possession. Whilst many of them might have had illegal plans for what was in their possession, there were a few who had fallen out with the medical system and were simply using it as a last resort. As a humanitarian who hates seeing people in pain, I came to realize that cannabis can have benefits after all.

It will not bring back Lecretia Seales, and it may be too late for Council of Trade Unions spokeswoman Helen Kelly who is fighting terminal cancer, but the decision of Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne to back medicinal cannabis trials can only be good.

Some will argue against the morality of using a drug that is illegal to be in possession of, sell or obtain. They will argue that it sets a bad precedent for future generations, and some may even go as far as saying that if cannabis is to be made legal in a medicinal form, then harder substances such as heroin might as well be made legal. It is an argument that from the perspective of financial or criminal gain might have had some credibility, but when one talks to a dying cancer patient who just wants their last days to be as pain free as possible the argument falls flat on its face.

What I support is:

  1. A cross party work group being established to prepare a scoping report about the feasibility of medicinal cannabis in a New Zealand context
  2. In conjunction with the working group, a set of field trials to be conducted into the development of cannabis crops suitable for medicinal use
  3. A second report exploring and making necessary recommendations regarding any legislative changes needed should cannabis be found to be feasible and appropriate medicinal cannabis can be developed
  4. How to make it available – will it simply be sold over the counter with a regular prescription, or will it require additional permissions

As this is already a contentious issue testing New Zealand law, there is no justification for any delay as the likelihood of further tests of the law as it currently stands are a certainty. In June permission for Nelson man Alex Renton to undergo cannabis treatment was granted due to the severity of his condition, which had him in a coma.