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, the 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 can have a lasting effect on life choices and opportunities for many. But I have yet to hear a convincing or robust 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 captivate to it.
The "recreational" users - those who use for leisure and temporary sensory pleasure (often associated with higher socio-economic classes, often city dwellers or professionals), 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 15 years as the MP for the East Coast Electorate. Do I have a bias? Most definitely. Cannabis addiction is a pre-cursor to ongoing and intensified harm, domestic and social problems, family violence and abuse, unemployment and mental health afflictions.
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.
I agree 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 the East Coast 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. Local principals told me it can be Wednesday before the eyes of some students clear from the "fug" in their home after a weekend's smoking activities. Levels of THC (THC is a crystalline compound that is the main intoxicant in cannabis) are not stated or regulated within the bill. Tax rates are not stated. Those must be balanced to curb the black market while not incentivising cannabis use. 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. In other words - the proposed regime is vague and imprecise - so an incoming Government could make huge or no changes.
The flow-on from a competitive and driven market will likely impact our poorer families 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 Labour-led Government has presented itself as transparent and caring.
They say they have a focus on well being and protecting vulnerable Kiwis, yet there is an enormous difference between their words and their actions.
They have supported and promoted a smoke-free New Zealand by 2025, yet want to make recreational cannabis use legal.
They claim to be supporting mental health and improving child well being by reducing child poverty and addressing family violence, but the possible negative outcomes of recreational cannabis could make these social issues worse.
I'm also not sure what will change in many of our more remote areas of this Electorate - who will check that only 2 plants per household are being grown? Who will check that a 'black market' isn't operating, run by gangs? The same people who fly helicopters, drive forest roads and check backyards now? The Police? So what will change?
There remains too many unanswered questions. The Bill before the public is so vague, it cannot be depended upon as it is presented. New Zealanders deserve to be provided facts, in order to make a considered decision about such an important issue.
I support decriminalisation and a slow, safe, measured and tested approach towards treating affliction and addiction. We, here in the East Coast have high rates of addiction now, combined with high rates of violence and unemployment. I haven't heard any reasonable arguments to prove that legalising cannabis use will make a positive change to those statistics. 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, New Zealand and how that will affect the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of our communities.