The Whanganui Science Forum organised a public meeting last Tuesday as an opportunity to share views with the public – views from divergent speakers and contexts on the potentially soon to be smokin' and hot topic of cannabis.

As the election approaches, so too does the referendum, where voters will be asked whether or not they support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.

There are two things worth pointing out – one, this bill (and debate) is different from the Medicinal Cannabis Bill which was passed into law last December, and two, decriminalising and legalising are two very different issues with their own implications.

I support decriminalising – in other words, users/consumers of small amounts of cannabis for personal use are exempt from criminal conviction, which has enduring consequences for many.

I am yet to be persuaded by and convinced of a robust and plausible argument in favour of the legalisation of recreational cannabis.

Cannabis is used by people from all socio-economic backgrounds, and while some consume it for "recreation", others become dependent on and captive to it.

Harete Hipango MP for Whanganui
Harete Hipango MP for Whanganui

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The "recreational" users – those who use for leisure and temporary sensory pleasure (often associated with higher socio-economic classes and/or "white privilege"), are not the same type of users as those most prone or predisposed to addiction – the need/desire to escape reality of economic and/or societal hardships and prejudice.

This is the reality of the people and communities I have worked amidst throughout my almost 30 years in criminal, family, youth, child welfare and mental health law. Do I have a bias? Most definitely.

Cannabis addiction is a pre-cursor to ongoing and intensified harm, domestic and social problems, family violence, intra and inter-familial issues, mental health afflictions and inter-generational cyclical manifestations.

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A recent report carried out by Royal Society Te Apārangi, confirms as much. The report found recreational cannabis to be associated with mental illness, particularly in youth, drug use disorders, respiratory illness, impaired cognition, increased road accidents and lower birthweight in babies born to women exposed to cannabis.

There is an inequity in the argument in favour of cannabis.

Most people charged with cannabis offences are from the lower/lowest socio-economic groups of society, and in New Zealand, are predominantly Maori.

I am also wary of the fact that the bill, although including a minimum age of 20 to use and purchase recreational cannabis, does not address the current environment where cannabis use and addiction is accessible and established under-age.

THC levels are not stated or regulated within the bill, tax rates are not stated which must be balanced to curb the black market while not incentivising cannabis use, and there is little information on who will be allowed to sell it, what the corporate market will look like, and how drug-driving and testing will be managed.

The flow-on from a competitive and driven market will likely impact the "under-privileged" in negative ways – an increase in the expenditure for drugs will lead to less money, as well as capability, competency and desire, to provide healthy nutrition and nurturing environments for children, spouses, families and wider communities. This genuinely worries me.

This Government has presented itself as transparent and caring.

They have purported to have a focus on wellbeing and protecting vulnerable Kiwis, yet there is an anomaly between their words and actions.

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They have supported and promoted a smoke-free New Zealand by 2025, yet want to make recreational cannabis use legal.

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They claim to be supporting mental health and improving child wellbeing by reducing child poverty and addressing family violence, but the possible negative outcomes of recreational cannabis use contradict these wellbeing goals.

The added shame is that the bill is seeking to promote Treaty of Waitangi principles and values of participation, partnership and equity where the Government outright rejected the consideration of cultural context, values and principles within the End of Life Choice and Abortion Bills.

The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill will cannibalise and consume those most disadvantaged in New Zealand society – again, Maori. There is no place for participation, partnership and equity within such a law.

There remains too many unanswered questions.

New Zealanders deserve to be provided facts, not liberal, ideological and individual rights-based entitlements.

I support decriminalisation and a slow, safe, measured and tested approach towards treating affliction and addiction.

New Zealanders will undoubtedly vote according to the context of their values and concerns.

I urge you all to cast your vote as if you are casting a vote for the future generation of Aotearoa, New Zealand and how that will affect our children, grandchildren and great- grandchildren.

What world and values-based society do you want them to be nurtured and nourished by?

•Harete Hipango is the National MP for Whanganui.