For nearly two years my company, Helius Therapeutics, has tracked public opinion on the upcoming cannabis referendum. Our latest survey delivered a dead heat.
Polling 1300 adult New Zealanders in August, Horizon Research found that 49.5 per cent supported the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, 49.5 per cent were against, and 1 per cent gave no response.
This could be the closest vote since 1919, when alcohol prohibition was defeated by just 10,362 votes. Regardless, it's increasingly clear it will come down to voter registration and election turnout, particularly if younger adults lift their current intention to vote.
Personally, I would prefer to see wider control of cannabis through strict regulation, although Helius will not be entering the recreational cannabis market if legalised. Our focus remains on producing world-class cannabis medicines which will be available to Kiwi patients, via prescription, from next year.
Nonetheless, cannabis law reform would impact the market dynamics of medicinal cannabis for both producers and prescribers. Subsequently, as New Zealand's largest medicinal cannabis company, we're not taking sides, but we're taking more than a passing interest.
If control of cannabis shifts from the black market to regulated businesses, it represents an economic opportunity for New Zealand. For businesses like ours, it could open up the potential to commercialise non-prescription CBD wellness products for the domestic market.
Helius supports the harm-reduction objectives set out in the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, which would be introduced into Parliament if the referendum passes. Adopting a health-based approach, rather than a criminal one, would enable more than 300,000 Kiwis to be freed from breaking the law on a regular basis. This is important to a lot of people, currently forced to live double lives for fear of being stigmatised.
Our latest survey revealed that 9 per cent of all adults use cannabis often, with 6 per cent saying they use it daily (equivalent to 201,100 adults) and 3 per cent using cannabis weekly (106,500).
Official Ministry of Health data reports even higher numbers of regular users in New Zealand.
Don't for a second assume usage is skewed towards the youth, university students, underprivileged, and unemployed. Horizon Research discovered there are just as many regular users of cannabis who are aged between 55 and 64 as there are aged between 18 and 24. The well-educated, professionals, self-employed, and those enjoying good incomes are well represented among regular users.
The overwhelming majority of New Zealanders believe prohibition of cannabis for personal use has failed. Back in February we revealed 83 per cent of Kiwis don't believe the prohibition of personal cannabis use is working, while 72 per cent said having controls for growing and selling cannabis for personal use would be better for society.
While legalisation isn't perfect, a regulated environment for cannabis would offer improvements on the status quo. It would see the development of locally-owned businesses, delivering jobs and tax revenue for our stretched healthcare sector.
Released earlier last month, two reports prepared for the Government by Business and Economic Research Limited (BERL) revealed that wider cannabis reform would generate $1.1 billion in taxes and create 5000 new jobs across the country.
BERL also reported that 74 tonnes of cannabis is currently consumed annually in New Zealand's illicit market, with a retail value of up to $1.5 billion.
Cannabis is already widely accessible and widely used. This month's decision is not whether the country wants it, but ultimately who should control the cannabis market. It's either gangs or government.
Gangs currently have a stranglehold on cannabis. Introducing regulatory control would hit them where it hurts. As well as delivering quality product standards, state regulation would deliver a safer, more open environment for the many Kiwis currently forced to deal underground.
I encourage those who remain unsure to check out the provisions in the Cannabis
Legalisation and Control Bill before voting. The bill takes a cautious, health-based approach, with all stages of the growing and supply chain strictly licensed and heavily controlled.
Further, the Government is determined to distribute the benefits of regulation equitably across the country, enabling a range of opportunities for small players right through to sophisticated businesses.
Creating many new businesses and jobs would without doubt provide an economic shot in the arm – the prospect of which is more attractive than ever given the mammoth task New Zealand's post-Covid recovery now presents.
• Paul Manning is the Chief Executive and Co-founder of Helius Therapeutics – New Zealand's largest licensed medicinal cannabis company.