The Public Health Association of NZ is urging a "yes" vote in the cannabis referendum, while doctors are openly questioning the NZ Medical Association's opposition to legalisation.
The referendum on October 17 is about the proposed legal framework outlined in the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, which details strict controls including a consumption age of 20, limits on THC potency, a levy ring-fenced to boost health services and a ban on smoking a joint anywhere except at home or at licensed premises.
"While there are potential harms associated with cannabis use, prohibition is not effective at preventing these and in some cases is directly increasing harm and inequities," the Public Health Association (PHANZ) said.
"The proposed bill reallocates resources away from prohibition and towards health services, incorporating 'demand reduction' and 'harm reduction' approaches," PHANZ said.
"This will encourage help-seeking and increase treatment access for those who are experiencing cannabis-related harm, while removing criminal penalty for those who recreationally use cannabis."
The PHANZ position contrasts to the Medical Association (NZMA), which opposes legalisation because of the harm it can cause, particularly for younger people whose brains are still developing up until age 25.
The "no" lobby has used the NZMA stance to frame the debate as one between the Drug Foundation and medical professionals.
But this week doctors spoke out against the NZMA stance, including Nina Sawicki, who quit the association over the issue.
"I decided to leave because I felt that their stance on the cannabis referendum, while it wasn't incorrect, I felt it was incomplete," Sawicki told RNZ.
PHANZ, in a media release, said criminalising cannabis did nothing to discourage its use and actually contributed to harm, "particularly in Māori and people who are socioeconomically vulnerable or disadvantaged, which embeds and reinforces stigma and poverty".
Māori are three times more likely to be arrested and convicted of a crime related to cannabis, and a conviction can affect one's employment, education, and housing outcomes.
If the status quo remained after the vote, PHANZ called for the new drug law - which has embedded police discretion when dealing with drug use - to be strengthened to reduce bias.
An investigation from the Herald showed that the new law - which came into effect in August last year - had seen a drop in police prosecutions for drug use, but a more punitive approach towards Māori when it came to cannabis.
PHANZ noted the harm cannabis can cause young people and how it can increase the risk of psychosis.
"There are also means within the proposed bill to offset this risk, such as regulation on potency, effective health promotion and education, and by increasing help-seeking and service access for those experiencing cannabis-related harms."