One of the most prominent voices in New Zealand's medical marijuana scene has spoken out against what he describes as "woefully ill-informed" political commentary about the liberalisation of cannabis laws.
The remarks from Helius Therapeutics executive director Paul Manning come after a number of high-profile media personalities, including Mike Hosking and Duncan Garner, expressed strong opposition to the relaxation of cannabis laws in the recreational market.
"The recent increase in anti-cannabis sentiment has been fuelled by political commentary, a lot of which has been woefully ill-informed," says Manning.
"Strong opinions of some media commentators and, what is perhaps best described as scaremongering by conservative groups, has also influenced how people see the issue. Most of it is wrong. Some of it has merit. All of it affects 'Brand Cannabis'."
Manning's business is focused on the medical side of the cannabis debate, but he says this type of commentary can have the impact of influencing views across the board.
"I'm working to address cannabis stigma and bring medical cannabis products into the mainstream," says Manning.
"My concern is that the recent and intensifying anti-recreational cannabis commentary has the potential to cloud the public's perceptions around medical use – and it shouldn't."
Even though his organisation has no interest in operating in the recreational space, Manning says legislative moves made on the recreational side could have a long-term impact on what legitimate businesses in the medical space can and can't do.
"Our business is in no way predicated on the referendum passing," he says.
"But even companies like ours could look at non-prescription wellness products, like CBD-infused cosmetics, for example. These would not be accessible under the medical cannabis regulations, so for that reason, we see merit in wider cannabis reform."
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CBD-infused products around the world are predicted to hit an overall value of US$22 billion in the next three years, according to international estimates. A large chunk of this is anticipated to come from the wellness category, which Manning refers to here. In other words, restrictive laws on the recreational side could have the side effect of costing legitimate medicinal cannabis companies - and thereby the economy - millions in potential revenue.
Given the business and societal repercussions of the referendum, Manning sees it as imperative to have a sensible debate, leading to decisions that aren't driven by fear.
Ongoing research being conducted by Manning's company shows that while 80 per cent of New Zealanders continue to back medical cannabis, the support for personal-use cannabis dropped from 60 per cent at the beginning of the year to 52 per cent by March.
Manning puts this slide down the effects of a debate that's becoming increasingly one-sided.
"Lack of clarity has created a vacuum that is being filled by fear," he says.
"Lobby groups like Family First have been using paid media to peddle concerns around THC-laden gummy bears. Meanwhile, we have not seen a well-coordinated campaign for recreational cannabis, despite Chloe [Swarbrick] doing her darnedest to balance the political debate."
This situation does seem somewhat analogous to the capital gains tax debate, which was quickly dominated by lobby groups with vested interests in maintaining the status quo. At the time, Massey University public relations specialist Dr Chris Galloway told the Herald that "the one who describes the crisis at the beginning often goes on to frame the subsequent debate".
In what has since come to fruition, Galloway predicted that the Government would end up losing the debate because it didn't come out and frame the discussion from the beginning.
Something similar is now happening when it comes to the discussions in the cannabis space - and Manning says he doesn't want to see the referendum won or lost on the basis of unbalanced arguments, at best, or misinformation, at worst.
"Evidently, New Zealand is divided on this issue," he says.
"Where you stand on recreational cannabis reform is largely related to how well you understand the risks and benefits of moving to a health-led approach over prolonging the war on drugs.
"There are certainly issues that need to be addressed, such as driver testing and impacts on workplace safety in certain settings. But if we're going down this path, we need to see a draft of the proposed regulations well before the referendum, so Kiwis can make an informed decision."
Despite his strong view on the issue, Manning says he won't be throwing any lobbying dollars into the referendum debate.
"While we support personal-use cannabis reform, we've never had plans to operate in the recreational space, so we're not getting involved in lobbying or anything of that nature," he says.
"We have a view on the personal use debate because the advent of a recreational market affects the dynamics of the medicinal market."
That market is set to pump millions of dollars into the New Zealand economy in the coming years. The full promise of this potential coming to fruition will, however, depend on what New Zealand does on the legal side.