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Pot or Not: the High Stakes of New Zealand’s Cannabis Referendum

For decades, Aotearoa (New Zealand) has been suffering from the wounds inflicted by our own “war on drugs” campaign. Laws need to promote health; however, our “war on drugs” has handcuffed us to our own outdated and ineffective protocols that have continued to unfairly target the Māori – the indigenous people of Aotearoa – and other marginalized groups in our society. It is high time that the New Zealand government reforms its drug policies to not only address their racial injustices and health inequities, but also to strengthen the economy, especially as we emerge from Covid-19. The October 2020 general election presented an opportunity for all Kiwis to push for such reforms, starting with the Cannabis Legalisation and Control referendum

Centrally, the legalization of cannabis is a vital step toward making amends for the damage caused by colonization. It presents a chance to address the systemic racism inherent within New Zealand’s current drug laws. The Māori were one of the few societies that had no known recreational drugs before the arrival of the European colonists. Today, however, they are New Zealand’s most marginalized community and the group most vulnerable to any legislation regarding drug use. Māori people, according to former MP Chester Borrows, are “most likely to be represented in all the negative stats right across our country.” 

The underlying racism of New Zealand’s drug laws are evident in the disproportionate targeting and punishment of the indigenous community. Māori people are six times more likely to get arrested, sentenced, and be given a harsher punishment than pākehā (white New Zealanders). Despite representing only 15 percent of the population, the Māori make up 50 percent of New Zealand prisoners; the numbers of Māori prisoners do not reflect their makeup in the general population, demonstrating the racism inherent in the system. Tuari Potiki, chair of the New Zealand Drug Foundation and director of Māori Development at the University of Otago, claims that if Māori “get caught with a joint in your pocket, you knew that wasn’t why they wanted you, but they use that so they can get you and then bail you up with all this other stuff.” This discriminatory behaviour is especially detrimental to young Māori as their incarceration only reinforces their identity as outcasts of society; the consequences of a conviction will further limit the opportunities available to them for the rest of their lives. Moreover, the stigma strongly dissuades addicts from seeking therapeutic help, causing them to fall deeper into the clutches of drug abuse. 

This referendum represented an opportunity to empower New Zealand’s indigenous people by removing the economic and social barriers to their upward mobility. Legalizing cannabis would reduce Māori cannabis convictions by almost 1,300 per year. This would place Māori on a more equal footing with other groups, and provide us all with better outcomes for education, travel, and employment. Additionally, injecting jobs and industries into towns historically negatively affected by the war on drugs would provide economic opportunities for uplifting rural Māori communities. Polls show that 75 percent of Māori support the cannabis referendum, demonstrating that they aren’t blind to the injustice they face; they want, and need, change. As the most severely impacted demographic of these drug laws, it is essential that Māori involvement in the creation of this legislation is prioritized. 

The legality of cannabis in New Zealand is currently dictated by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. Any possession of cannabis is illegal and can lead to a $500 fine or a maximum sentence of three months’ imprisonment. This policy was enacted to eradicate the supply of marijuana as part of New Zealand’s war on drugs campaign, but has failed to do so due to the ‘balloon effect.’ Similarly to how the air of a balloon gets displaced from one side to the other when squeezed, a crackdown on manufacturers only moves the production of cannabis to other areas due to the market being price-insensitive. MP Chlöe Swarbrick criticizes the prevailing drug laws for “push[ing] the problem into the shadows, where it has become more complicated, more harmful and more difficult to deal with.” 

By regulating the marijuana market and standardizing the supply of cannabis available to the population, the NZ government can facilitate the safe and healthy consumption of the drug for all Kiwis. The current proposal looks something like this: Kiwis over the age of 20 would be able to buy up to a daily limit of 14 grams of dried cannabis from licensed shops. The product can only contain a maximum of 15 percent THC, and would come in tamper- and child-proof packaging with clear labelling and expiry dates. With a legal stock of marijuana to purchase, customers will be discouraged from seeking out alternatives on the black market. Synthetic cannabinoids is one example of a dangerous substitute for cannabis; its consumption caused more than 70 deaths in New Zealand between 2017 and 2019. Additionally, the risk of drug users progressing to more harmful substances and criminal activity can be reduced by severing their relationship with illegal suppliers. The transformation of New Zealand’s drug laws can significantly minimize existing cannabis abuse and stigma around its use. Furthermore, reforming drug laws can empower those disadvantaged in our society by reducing economic and social barriers to their upward mobility. 

The cannabis market is a budding industry that, if properly regulated by the government, could bring about significant economic benefits for the entire country. The revenue of selling cannabis through the black market could be appropriated by the government; the NZ Institute of Economic Research estimates that revenues could reach about $490 million NZD annually with just a 25 percent excise tax. These gains can then be used to promote rehabilitation and educational programs rather than funding incarceration. The successful extraction of this wealth, however, rests upon the government’s ability to draw users away from their existing dealers. Because black market dealers can slash the prices of their products, it may be difficult for the government to set cannabis prices to be both competitive and profitable. To combat this, the government can impose harsher penalties on unlicensed suppliers, which would increase their production costs. 

It is also important to educate the public about the dangers of using illegal alternatives when compared to safer and legal cannabis. Coupled with a larger budget, the redistribution of government expenditure will allow for more effective drug prevention measures. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark considers the strict policing of cannabis to be “the worst waste of taxpayer money” in New Zealand. According to the 2016 Drug Harm Index, $200 million is spent on cannabis-related interventions in the criminal and justice sector annually, but there is little evidence that this has reduced drug use in any significant way. Funding would be better spent on improving drug rehabilitation services to support people battling addiction. Given that greater accessibility to cannabis increases the risk of drug abuse, it is even more important to establish drug education programs. Informing the public, especially the youth, will play a crucial role in harm reduction by helping them make healthier choices. 

The rest of the world may call us a progressive country, but how can we claim that title when our laws still reflect the philosophies of the 1970s? How can we call ourselves a peace-loving nation when racial inequality is rampant? While New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, acknowledges these differences and asserts the Māori people’s right to govern themselves with their own system, Māori voices have for too long been excluded from political participation. Passing the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill signifies so much more than just a reformation in New Zealand’s attitude toward drugs. This legislation can serve as a powerful opportunity for Kiwis to take a step toward reconciling our history of oppressing the Māori. The votes are in and while we wait in anticipation for the results of this referendum on November 6, let’s remember that racial struggle in Aotearoa does not end with this legislation. The fight for indigenous self-determination is an ongoing one.

Photo: Image via Flickr (Marketeering Group)