Chloe Swarbrick, Green Party MP

My old man always said that the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. As many New Zealanders would lament, too much of that approach pervades our poll-driven, focus-group centric, rhetoric-heavy politics.

Most of us say we want is a little bit more common sense, which it happens, is defined as "good sense and sound judgment in practical matters". We want more skin in the game; we want an actual understanding in Parliament of how our lives are lived and the solutions we need.

When it comes to cannabis, the problem begins to blossom under the reality that the solution for harm reduction is nuanced. We all can agree cannabis can come with harm, particularly from early or excessive use. If that's our starting point, the conversation must then become about how we best reduce that harm.

Advertisement

Most New Zealanders (up to 80 per cent, according to academics in the Christchurch Longitudinal Study) will have used cannabis by the time they're 21. They will have sourced this cannabis from the underground black market, and they won't know anything but guesstimates about the potency, how it will affect them, or how to reduce harm if they have a less than pleasant experience.

If they do have an unpleasant experience, or become dependent, data (from the Ministry of Health) shows that they're unlikely to reach out for help - particularly if they're in brackets of society that have low trust for officials or figures of authority.

Experts and researchers, internationally, are in mainstream consensus that what we're doing when it comes to criminalising drug use and users isn't working. At home, the independent Government-commissioned report He Ara Oranga (otherwise known as the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry) received some 5000 submissions, with the representative and expert panel concluding that criminalisation of drug use has not only overseen an increase in drug use and drug harm, but contributed to a web of social, family and justice issues.

The Green Party favours legalising cannabis. Photo / NZME
The Green Party favours legalising cannabis. Photo / NZME

Crudely put, it's simply not plausible to frame the argument for reforming away from cannabis prohibition and criminalisation as a debate where two equal sides stack up against each other, and a moral judgement sways the favour. At this point, if one is to genuinely engage in the thick of the evidence, it is only a dogmatic moral judgment that can ignore how we get the best possible outcomes. Pure moral judgments are what they are, but it's important we're open about the fact that they're simply not grounded in evidence. And the consequences of them, according to the evidence being ignored, is that we continue to see increased societal harm.

Frequently, the debate on legal regulation of cannabis gets personal. We saw that this week, where I was told my age and lack of offspring invalidates my position. But I'm not interested in seeking to base the value of the position of another person on their personal characteristics - to dismiss the commentator class for their largely homogeneous demography and life experience would be cheap point scoring, and it means sidelining the actual issue as arguments descend into ad hominem jabs.

It's a complete side-show (albeit, to some, entertaining) to have two people bickering about whether their subjective "life-experience" better qualifies them to talk on an issue, particularly when they fundamentally agree with the same starting point: They've seen cannabis can cause harm.

Most New Zealanders have agreed for a long time that criminalising users is not sensible (2016, 2017, 2018 Curia/NZ Drug Foundation Polling). The rub now appears to be distinguishing between decriminalising and legal regulation.

I've been told by a lot of media advisers, and even earlier this week by a radio commentator, that the argument is too nuanced for "the public" and that it's therefore a lost cause. Perhaps it's my earnest naivety that means I believe New Zealanders are far more intelligent and interested in the future of their country than to disengage simply because the discussion requires more thinking.

Decriminalisation simply removes penalties from users. It's completely silent on how people will source cannabis, and therefore could even perversely incentivise a growing black market; one which doesn't check ID, doesn't care for potency, won't educate consumers and has no legal duty of care.

I'm an advocate for legalisation, despite personal pushback from well-listened talkback hosts, because I've seen the harm illegal cannabis can cause. In my extended family, in flatmates, in my community and in my volunteering with homeless youth. I want legal regulation to enable intervention in all of this chaos we presently push into the shadows: out of sight, but evidently, not out of mind.