Among commentators pushing for legalising marijuana, broadcaster Jack Tame has argued the best way to stop “the stoner kids” from damaging their brains isn’t to increase penalties or punish them for being found with a joint. The best way to protect our young people, he insists, “is to legalise it”.
Tame was contributing to a debate which will culminate in New Zealanders voting in a binding referendum on the personal use of cannabis at next year’s general election.
Massey University drug researcher Chris Wilkins and his colleagues say it is important that Kiwis are given rigorous and balanced information on cannabis legalisation before they vote.
They have challenged a study on cannabis legalisation which estimated net social benefit of a commercial cannabis market in New Zealand at $225m a year
The risks of legalising cannabis in New Zealand have been understated, they say.
In particular, they rebut the assumption that a legal cannabis market will not result in an increase in harm.
Writing in the New Zealand Medical Journal today, researchers from the university’s SHORE and Whakiri Research Centre said they were broadly in support of cannabis law reform that was based on harm reduction.
But the group – led by respected drug researcher Professor Chris Wilkins – were concerned about a report released late last year which they said did not give an adequate picture of the potential risks of a commercial cannabis market in New Zealand.
That report, by economic consultancy Sense Partners, looked at the potential impact of several law reform options, including a legal, regulated market for cannabis. It concluded that such a market in New Zealand could generate $240 million in tax revenue and could have a net social benefit of $225m a year if health and education services were invested in.
One of the Massey academics’ concerns about the Sense Partners study was its belief that the price of cannabis could be raised in a legal market to avoid encouraging more people to use it.
In the United States, the legalisation of cannabis in two states had resulted in big falls in the price of cannabis in those places – even with high taxes on the product. That was because companies were able to produce at scale and with modern agricultural methods.
This suggests it will take a very high tax rate and/or minimum price on cannabis, and continual revision of these tax rates, to maintain the legal price of cannabis and counter the efficiency gains of legal cannabis production, the article said.
We haven’t heard much from Tariana Turia on the cannabis issue, whereas she has been stridently voluble in campaigning against the tobacco industry and championed the hefty taxes which are raised year by year to discourage smoking.
One consequence of this tough-tax policy – according to Stats NZ – is that Māori and low-spending households experienced the greatest rise in inflation in the March 2018 quarter.
Māori households were hit hardest with inflation, up 1.3 per cent, compared with the 0.8 per cent average, “driven by higher prices for cigarettes and tobacco, and interest payments,” consumer prices manager Geraldine Duoba said.
Cigarettes and tobacco make up about 3 per cent of total living costs for the lowest-spending households, compared to 1 per cent for the highest.
Whether Maori would prefer to switch from a durry to a joint, as the tax bite becomes more hurtful, is a moot point. But a recent Horizon Research poll found 75% of 620 Māori surveyed would vote for legalising cannabis, if a referendum was held tomorrow.
Just 14% voted against legalising for person use and 11% were unsure.
Drugs Foundation chair Tuari Potiki, curiously, is reported as saying those results “puncture the belief this is solely a white, middle class issue”.
Wherever did he get that idea?
Green Party reform zealot Chloe Swarbrick, on the other hand, is reported to have said more engagement is needed with iwi, hapu and Maori health groups “to ensure Maori experiences were central in the reform”.
Swarbrick has also said the “best outcome we can possibly get is to treat this as a health issue instead of a criminal one ….”
But maybe we shouldn’t forget about the criminal consequences.
In Britain, commentator Peter Hitchens has linked cannabis use with a surge in knife crimes in Britain in recent years.
There is a very good reason why people generally don’t stab each other. Normal, sane humans recoil from the very idea of plunging a sharp blade into a fellow creature, let alone driving it so deep that it is bound to kill.
The crime has been rare because nobody wanted to commit it. Yet now we have a significant minority who do not recoil. So what has changed?
He rules out the easy availability of knives .
There have always been plenty of knives. You do not need some menacing, wickedly curved weapon to end a life.
Every home in this country contains blades that could kill, in the hands of a person who wanted to use them that way.
Hitchens ruled out other possibilities, such as too few police, before identifying drug use as the culprit.
He describes the latest knifing statistics as the worst since an unpoliced London was roamed by armed footpads and highwaymen haunted the country roads.
In a way, they are even worse than then. This is, by comparison with those times, a rich and settled society. But in an important way, we are worse. We have drugs. These drugs do not just intoxicate, as alcohol does. They make their users mentally ill, irrational, uninhibited, careless of the consequences of what they do.
No, not every marijuana smoker goes out and kills – but not every boozer gets into fights, or commits rape, or kills people with drunken driving, and not every cigarette smoker gets cancer or heart disease.
But we act against these things because of the significant minority who do cause or experience these tragic outcomes.
And almost all of those who go out and kill someone with a blade will turn out, once the investigation is over, to be a long-term user of marijuana, no longer wholly sane or wholly civilised. Its widespread use is the only significant social change in this country that correlates with the rise in homicidal violence.
It is a problem which a lot of people don’t want to discuss. Who are they? There is the billionaire lobby, of businessmen and politicians, who want to legalise marijuana, who hate every mention of the increasingly obvious connection between use of that drug and severe violence. It could rob them of big profits and big tax receipts.
It could upset the well-funded lobbies for appeasing drug abuse by so-called ‘harm reduction’…
After the knifing horrors of a recent weekend, a UK Government Minister, Victoria Atkins, concurred:
‘Drugs is the main driver as far as we are concerned of this serious violence’, although she then said ‘which is why we are very keen to ensure that the laws in relation to illegal drugs remain as tough as they are’.
They are not tough because they are not enforced, Hitchens counters.
His concerns are reinforced by the author of a book which claims marijuana causes aggression, psychosis, suicides and violence and its legalisation in Washington has triggered a 40% increase in murder rates.
There is little concrete information about the drug’s benefits (despite plenty of claims) because its illegality has made it difficult to study.
But according to former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, there is clear evidence that marijuana is not as safe – and certainly not as curative – as the pro-cannabis groups would have us believe.
Writing in his new book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, Berenson weaves together various findings – including studies showing cannabis can cause mental illness, the 50-percent increase in schizophrenia hospital admissions since 2006, and Washington’s murder rate statistics, which shot up to its highest point in recent years after the state became the first to legalize pot.
Public health officials are hesitant to conclusively connect these dots, but Berenson insists the correlation has been seen too many times to be a coincidence: ‘That debate is over. By any reasonable standard, the connection has been proven.’
In short, the evidence of marijuana’s link to psychosis and violence “is so strong, the issue so misunderstood, and the consequences so severe.”