I was delighted to hear Hawke's Bay Ngati Kahungungu leader Ngahiwi Tomoana endorse a "yes" vote for the referendum on the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill to be voted on with this month's general election.
An aspect of the agreement between the Labour and Green parties which established the governing majority following the 2017 general election was an obligation "to have a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at, or by, the 2020 general election".
Voters should know that this is not a "binding" referendum and the draft legislation intended to follow a yes vote will still need to be enacted by the new government.
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The options that will confront voters when they go to vote will be:
"Yes, I support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill" or
"No, I do not support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill"
Public opinion is evenly divided on the issue with the most recent poll by Horizon research delivering a dead heat with 49.5 per cent of respondents for the bill and 49.5 per cent against.
My experience with the anti-methamphetamine Stellar Trust and more recently with the NZ Howard League for penal reform makes me a very strong advocate for a yes vote in the cannabis referendum and I will be advocating support for this measure at every possible opportunity.
The bill that is authorised by a yes vote would legalise restricted access to cannabis to people over 20 years old who would be able to buy up to 14 grams of dried cannabis per day from licensed outlets, enter licensed premises where cannabis is sold or consumed, as well a consume cannabis on private property. Individuals would be able to grow up to two plants and share up to 14 grams of dried cannabis with another person aged 20 or over.
Essentially, the measures detailed above are a simple recognition of a trade that happens thousands of times every day in this country but is currently illegal.
Something like three-quarters of Kiwis have sampled cannabis at some time in their lives and that number includes at least two out of the last four New Zealand prime ministers.
The illegality of this widely consumed substance is one major reason New Zealand has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the civilised world and is a very significant driver of the more than 50 per cent of prisoners who identify as Māori – a total that is way out of proportion to Māori in the population.
The cannabis bill is explicit in its intention to reduce the potential harm from the drug. Access would be provided to legal cannabis that meets specified quality and potency requirements, health warnings will be required on packaging, and attempts will be made to raise the awareness of health risks associated with cannabis use.
Howard League volunteers have tutored hundreds of prisoners over the past decade and I have had the opportunity to meet with many, mostly young Māori, who have learnt to read and write and acquired other skills through the league's programmes at ceremonies where these people are awarded graduation certificates.
A story which I hear too often goes something like the following:
Rangi T, a young person from a not wealthy family, keeps getting pinged by the police for driving without a licence. As this person is in a low wage job or subsists on a benefit, the several hundred dollars cost of the three-stage licence is not affordable.
At some point this repeat offending is compounded by the possession of the now illegal drug cannabis and Rangi T gets a first prison sentence. Once in jail, recruitment into one of the gangs that infest New Zealand jails is close to unavoidable for people like Rangi T and all too often a life of crime on release beckons.
This is a generalised example, but something like this occurs far too often and costs our community dearly in terms of our taxes – prisoners cost taxpayers more than $120,000 per year each – and in lost opportunity and ruined lives.
Legalised cannabis openly sold will be a heavy blow to the criminal gangs that now dominate the trade and heavily reduce the opportunity for these malign forces to push the addictive and much more dangerous drug methamphetamine.
An important benefit of the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, if passed, is the generation of a cash flow to address drug harm.
A levy, like that applied to alcohol and gambling, would fund services to reduce cannabis harm and the economic consultancy BERL estimates that legalisation would generate $1.1 billion in taxes and create as many as 5000 jobs across the country.
This referendum is a once in a generation chance bring some overdue sanity to a trade which occurs every minute with little threat to anyone.
- Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president.