8 May 2019

Cannabis referendum: No simple fix to drug law - community worker

8:01 am on 8 May 2019

A Northland community worker fears legalising cannabis will do more harm than good in a region that is already struggling with widespread drug abuse.

Marijuana buds ( cannabis), hemp plant. Washington State. Legal Medical marijuana law in US.

Photo: 123rf.com

Voters will face a simple Yes-No question in next year's referendum.

The government will now draw up draft legislation setting out a minimum age of 20 for buying and using, regulations for commercial supply, limited options for people to grow the drug at home and a public education programme.

Community worker Ngahau Davis said while cannabis was often used in a social context without many issues in affluent areas, it played a more dangerous role in the poorer communities he worked with in Northland.

"A lot of whanau I work with where there's chronic unemployment, really huge social issues from trauma, all sorts of things going down with that person, they use it really heavily on a daily basis just to survive and just to feel good. The difficulty with that type of usage is you're starting to see a lot of problems around mental health issues.

"People say 'Well it's a drug that chills you' - well I say to people don't smoke it for a day or so, then this whole other thing starts happening; paranoia, frustration, irritability, and even violence."

While he was yet to read the government's Cabinet paper, he wasn't convinced legalisation was the answer.

"When we talk about the issue of, say, prohibition with alcohol, people said 'Well they're going to do it anyway, and you've got to do this'. It still hasn't stopped the pain, it still hasn't stopped the damage.

"Nobody wants to talk about that because it's legal and there's a whole industries where people are getting rich. My caution is that while they've done that and it's legal, it still doesn't diminish the effect that it has on people in our society and our people, more so because they're in a situation where dependency is higher because of the social issues that go with regions like mine."

The government's Cabinet paper on the referendum sets out two primary objectives - minimising the harm associated with cannabis and lowering the overall use of the drug over time through education and addiction services.

Mr Davis said there needed to be a focus on tackling the wider exacerbating problems like unemployment.

"It's not as simple as 'we're going to change this, we're going to change the law, we're going to put in all these interventions' because the causation, or key elements, are the other social factors that haven't necessarily been addressed.

"The question must be what causes the high usage in the first place, what drives people back to using big amounts, copious amounts that actually end up affecting their families...? Those are the questions and if we don't deal with those things we could be causing more damage in the end in the area of mental health when we sanction this as all good."

He said it was something that had to be done right, and not politicised.

'They've done a very good job'

The Drug Foundation backs a yes vote - arguing the government's approach means cannabis will be strictly controlled alongside a focus on people's health.

"This can be a complicated issue and they've actually canvassed a wide range of issues that anyone's got to grapple with when it comes to regulating cannabis and I think they've done a very good job," executive director Ross Bell said.

"Taking this regulated approach is going to address quite a few things. One of them is going to be the impact to the criminal justice and the current convictions people are getting. You'll be able to put that aside so I think the reduced burden on the criminal justice system will be one of those things.

More importantly, he said, the regulation would give the government greater control over the cannabis market than the current status quo.

"I think in the kinds of framework that this government is talking about, that public health approach where you look at health and safety, you look at prevention messages, you look at controlling the market, all of those things combined is going to have a much better chance at reducing the harms of cannabis than we currently have leaving control in the hands of gangs."

Sue Paton from the Addiction Practitioners Association said it was important the right people had their say.

"People in recovery, practitioners working in the addiction sector, and Maori, should be at the forefront of designing what the legislation's going to look like. I think we need to put some things in place that will to protect the groups that are most vulnerable to harm."

Associate Professor Joseph Boden, who has studied data on the use of cannabis a longitudinal study of more than 1000 people born in Christchurch in 1977, said the legislation had adequate safeguards.

Dr Boden said a minimum age of purchase of 20 took into account the fact that young people's brains were particularly vulnerable to the effects of THC, the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis.

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