Helen Clark: A no vote won’t deliver a cannabis-free New Zealand

OPINION:

The provisional results of the cannabis referendum show the vote for change coming close, but short of a majority. The gap between yes and no is likely to narrow when the large number of votes yet not counted are factored in, but the jury is out on whether it can be closed altogether.

The provisional result is disappointing for the broad range of those who advocated for change. The case for legalisation was evidence-based. It weighed up the harms caused by prohibition against the potential for harm from cannabis use. It took into account that cannabis has for decades been a very widely available recreational drug in New Zealand and that a large majority of New Zealanders have used it.

A no vote cannot and will not deliver a cannabis-free New Zealand. What it delivers is the ongoing control of supply chains by organised crime which profits greatly from it. It also delivers a pipeline of recruits to the criminal justice system. Those young people caught in the law and order net for use, possession, and/or supply can face years of a downward spiral into one conviction after another. Those, including at worst custodial sentences, blight their prospects for employment and other opportunities.

A yes vote would have delivered significant health benefits with a levy on sales dedicated to improving services, including for the under-20s who could not be legally supplied with cannabis, but nonetheless were procuring and using it. There would also have been significant economic and social benefits for the regions where cannabis is grown and where people would have had legal livelihoods, and for the public purse which stood to benefit both from hundreds of billions of dollars of tax revenue and from not spending more than $200 million a year on futile attempts by authorities to enforce prohibition.

Thinking caps must now be applied to the future of drug policy. The Prime Minister is clearly of the view that use and possession of drugs should not be a criminal offence. So, presumably, was Parliament when it passed the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act 2019 which formally directed the police not to arrest and prosecute for use and supply.

Unfortunately, they kept on doing so, aided and abetted by the wording in the law insisted on by New Zealand First which enabled them to do so if it was “required in the public interest”. That rider should be repealed quickly by the new Parliament, and the police should abide by the new law.

Such repeal should not be seen as a radical move. Even the Salvation Army, which campaigned vociferously against legalisation, has now called for decriminalisation. If the final result confirms the no vote by a narrow majority, the incoming Minister of Justice should infer from that that there is an appetite for making decriminalisation a reality and not a discretionary matter for the police. Let’s hope s/he has the fortitude to act on that and does not let this moment pass.

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