3 min read

When the sky didn't fall

I’m hearing that, in contrast to basically every other political question ever, there might be some benefit in boring middle-aged white men saying what they think about the cannabis referendum.

So: Vote Yes. The status quo is terrible.

I’m not writing from personal experience here – as a relatively asocial and cautious nerd, I didn’t even get the opportunity to turn it down until I was 21, in the US as an exchange student. But the problems with the current situation are pretty clear:

  • It’s racist. Poor and brown people are much more likely to be prosecuted for cannabis use. For example, Māori are about twice as likely as NZ Europeans to report using cannabis (in the NZ Health Survey) but about four times as likely to be convicted of cannabis offences.
  • Medical cannabis use is theoretically allowed, but not accessible. The Medsafe-approved products are very expensive and hard to get prescribed, and while medical use of other cannabis is not illegal1, the people who grow and supply it are still breaking the law.
  • The current law ensures that profits from cannabis sale go to criminal gangs, a use of money with very low benefit:cost ratio compared even to taxing it and spending it on roads.
  • The fact that cannabis is illegal and easy to test for has increased demand for synthetic cannabimimetics, which are much more dangerous.
  • Cannabis appears to subsitute for alcohol (at least to some extent), but causes fewer health problems either for the user or for innocent bystanders

One reason I’m more confident about this than many controversial political topics is the experience with cannabis legalisation in the US. I lived in Seattle for 15 years, and I still visit the US frequently. The State of Washington legalised cannabis shortly after I left, and other states have also legalised it. The states have had different approaches: Colorado had a relatively unplanned free-for-all; Washington thought about the issues for even longer than was perhaps necessary and implemented a restrictive but sensible plan; California had few restrictions but lots of paperwork, perversely encouraging large players.

The common experience of all these states is that nothing terrible has happened as a result. The NZ draft bill does actually look to be well-designed, but even if it wasn’t, we’d be better off voting ‘Yes’. Cannabis legalisation is a policy change that even the US hasn’t managed to fuck up.

  1. It’s worse than I realised: this only applies to palliative use in terminal illness, not to chronic pain or to nausea from potentially curative chemotherapy or to anything else [return]