The Whanganui Science Forum aims to improve public access to well researched and reviewed scientific information.
We do not have a group position on most things but by getting reliable information out there, decision-making for audience members, while not necessarily easier, may at least be based on good evidence and logic.
On December 19, 2020, the public gets to decide upon the next government. It also gets to vote in a referendum on the use of cannabis.
The question that will be asked is: Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill?
The options are simply yes or no.
Unless you have a detailed knowledge of the contents of that bill (all 64 pages of it) and some idea of the facts around the issue then the question is meaningless.
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Democracy without knowledge is not democracy.
The Whanganui Science Forum decided to set up a panel of speakers with differing backgrounds who could make meaningful contributions to public knowledge in this area.
These speakers were given a set of questions several weeks before the forum and so arrived well-prepared.
It would be impossible to give a full account of the information coming from this meeting in this article, but a full recording will be shortly found in a link on the Whanganui Science Forum website (http://totallyfranktoo.nz). This article will give some of the most important points.
Member of Parliament for Whanganui Harate Hipango began by describing her great exposure to people suffering from problems associated with cannabis use in her time as a lawyer in Whanganui.
She related her feelings that what some people see as a recreational drug she sees as a drug of addiction and affliction that has caused much harm.
On the other hand, she does support medicinal cannabis and decriminalisation but stops short of legalisation while pointing out possible difficulties for many lay people in understanding the difference.
Joe Boden is a Professor at Otago University in Christchurch.
A major part of his research over the past 15 years has looked at data derived by following the lives of more than 1000 people born in Christchurch in 1977.
In many countries, research into cannabis is not permitted by law and so the data from his research is some of the best available in the world. Joe is also on the Prime Minister's Expert Panel on Cannabis.
Over the evening Joe gave great amounts of solid science but there are two statements which stand out.
Of the people in the study, 80 per cent have used cannabis at least once in their life while 35 per cent have maintained a regular habit of once a week or more for at least part of their life.
This puts New Zealand into ninth place in per capita use across the world and tells us that cannabis use is now almost normative in New Zealand.
The pervasiveness of cannabis in New Zealand means that, whatever the outcome of the referendum vote, habits, in the short term at least, will be unaffected.
This means that what we are really voting for is the best way to deal with a situation rather than making judgments about "to punish or not to punish".
Nandor Tanczos is a long-time cannabis law reform activist.
Over the time he has been involved his ideas have developed and he emphasises the importance of being open to new ideas and research findings.
He has gone from believing cannabis to be harmless and even sometimes inspirational to realising that for a few people it's use can cause real harm.
This led him to regard decriminalisation as the best path.
He then realised that allowing people to use cannabis but not allowing a legal means of access does not remove the criminality and the wider social problems coming from that criminality.
This has caused him to move towards supporting legalisation.
However, this legalisation would be within a framework of regulation.
The regulation would cover who has access, quality of product and other factors.
In practise it would look like the regulations of supply and quality around alcohol in New Zealand.
Chester Borrows needs no introduction in Whanganui but he briefly outlined his career as a policeman on the front line of law enforcement and later as a lawyer finding himself defending people he had earlier locked up.
He recalled the many domestic violence callouts he attended where the single or main drug being used was alcohol.
He mentioned that he never attended a violence callout where the only drug was cannabis.
The reason for convictions in cannabis cases was simply the word of the law around possession and use.
He mentioned the effects of such convictions in terms of employment, education and travel prospects on people who were already disadvantaged.
Fiona Hutton is Associate Professor of Criminology at Victoria University.
Before moving into academia, she worked in street-based projects around needle exchange schemes.
Fiona saw the harm caused, not only by drug use but also the criminality associated with and driven by drug prohibition.
Her move into researching drug law reform was driven by her passion for reducing harm to people.
Fiona briefly described the government bill as a system of tightly regulated legalisation and regards this as the right path to go down.
This would keep people growing a small amount for their own use or for medicinal use away from the criminal justice system.
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It means marijuana products can be tested for harmful additives and potency. It regulates who can and cannot buy and sell cannabis.
Beginning in April the Government will be posting out to all households, information about the bill.
There will also be forums and discussions around the country run by other organisations.
On this important issue, as a good Kiwi everybody should make an effort to understand what the bill is about before they make their decision.
This account is necessarily lacking in detail. Go online to https://www.referendum.govt.nz/cannabis/index.html to find what the bill looks like and watch a video of the forum at (http://totallyfranktoo.nz).
• Frank Gibson is a semi-retired teacher of mathematics and physics who has lived in the Whanganui region since 1989. He runs the Whanganui Science Forum.