Speech to 2019 Parliamentary Drug Policy Symposium

Hon Andrew Little, Minister of Justice
Speech to the 2019 Parliamentary Drug Policy Symposium "Through the maze: Just and equitable drug law reform"
13 September 2019, Parliament Buildings, Wellington, New Zealand

Kia ora koutou.
E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā matā waka.
Tēnā koutou katoa.
Haere ngā mate, moe mai.
Koutou ma ngā Rangatira. Ko Anaru ahau.
Ko au te Minita mo ngā Ture.
He honore tino nui kei roto i ahau.
No reira. Tēna koutou katoa.

Can I please acknowledge:

  • Our hosts - my good friend and colleague Kiritapu Allan MP – and the team from the New Zealand Drug Foundation;
  • Hon Chester Borrows, Chair, Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora - the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group;
  • Our international speakers Asha Bandele and Deborah Small;
  • Other speakers, including the distinguished Moana Jackson and Kylee Quince;
  • Guests, friends.

I am addressing you today as the Minister responsible for arranging the referendum on whether or not to legalise cannabis, which will be held with next year’s General Election.

Today I will:

  • Briefly outline decisions taken to date by the Government in preparation for the referendum;
  • Outline the issues on both sides of the legalisation argument that New Zealand voters will have to grapple with in the decision that we collectively get to make next year;
  • Talk about what the draft legislation providing for legalisation of cannabis will cover.

The commitment to hold the referendum is recorded in the confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party - but it is fair to say that during the formation of the government, discussions about a referendum on cannabis were not just confined to the Labour and Green parties.

This Government is committed to a well-informed referendum, so that a definitive response can be given on the question of this country’s preferred approach to the substance.

The Government has made decisions on some aspects of the referendum:

  • It will be a ‘Yes’/’No’ question, asking each voter whether they support, or don’t support, legalisation of the personal use of cannabis. Those aren’t necessarily the actual words, and considerable effort is going into ensuring the question is couched in a way that makes it easily understandable;
  • There will be a draft piece of legislation available early next year, which will set out a full regime of regulation of cannabis, as an alternative to the current prohibitionist approach. The objective of potential legislation is challenging: to shift from the absolute prohibition regime we have now to a more permissive one, while ensuring that the harm cannabis can cause is safeguarded against;
  • Work has been commissioned on the science of cannabis – its pharmacological affects on the individual user, as well as its public health implications. The purpose of this is to ensure there is current, accurate scientific information to feed into the public debate. Work is also under way on what a neutral information campaign might look like.

From the Government’s point of view, I do not think there is any illusion about the significance of the decision New Zealanders are being called upon to make in the referendum.

Cannabis was completely outlawed in New Zealand back in 1965. That was part of an international trend to do so, and consistent with international obligations we had signed up to at the time - and we have signed up to more since. After more than half a century of prohibition, we have invested much in enforcement and attempts to control the presence of the substance in our communities.

But the substance is well and truly present:

  • A significant proportion – almost half – of New Zealanders admit to having tried cannabis at some time in their lives;
  • It is estimated that between quarter of a million and 300,000 Kiwis are regular users;
  • Roughly one tenth of New Zealanders over the age of 15 said in a recent survey they had used cannabis at least once in the previous 12 months.

The current approach to the presence of cannabis in our communities has certainly stigmatised it. Prohibition has freighted it with two possible senses:

  • Either it’s an evil drug, otherwise it wouldn’t have been banned; or
  • It’s cool in a gansta type of way!

So, in light of this, changing the legal status of cannabis, so that it is lawful - so that it comes out of the shadows, so that it loses its stigma – is a massive change to our social values.

It is right, therefore, that it is a decision for the voting public to make through a referendum. A referendum allows the question of changing the status of cannabis to be thoroughly examined and debated.

This symposium is a part of that public debate; as is the two-episode examination of the issue on TV Three over the last couple of nights; and the recent publication from the Helen Clark Foundation.

But there has also been some commentary declaring the proposition of legalisation as “dopey”. This sort of commentary, so far, has been big on assertion but light on evidence.

Let me say it again: This is an issue that needs to be closely examined, and discussed.

For one thing, it is not straight forward. This is why the state must take some responsibility for ensuring there is good evidence-based information available to the public, so their decision is well-informed. That won’t stop the debate being punctuated by emotional pleas – there is emotion in the debate, so that is understandable.

And there is fear, too, and I will come back to that.

Some of you at this symposium from other jurisdictions will have experienced how these public debates go. For some in the community, the referendum will be a question of morality. But for me, the question is about public health and safety.

I am hopeful we can keep the debate focussed on what we know about science and human behaviour, and keep the name-calling, the fake news and the posturing to a reasonable minimum.

In the hope that paid politicians might exhibit some collective leadership, I have sought to bring together a cross-party group on the draft legislation. The group has yet to meet, but the underlying proposition for that group is this: the decision is not ours as politicians, it is the electorate’s.

And if the electorate decides ‘Yes’, then we must know what that means in practice. It’s not about politicians all agreeing – I don’t expect that. But I think being prepared for a ‘Yes’ vote is the responsible thing to do.

Let me set out what I think are the major challenges each side of the debate must address.

The onus will be on those arguing for legalisation – the argument for change always bears the burden of proof, if only because we are familiar with the status quo, and change entails uncertainty.

The argument for change is that after 54 years of prohibition, cannabis is well-embedded in our communities; young people have access to it; supply and distribution is largely controlled by criminal elements; users don’t necessarily know what the quality and safety of the product they are buying is; and in any event, most users consume without harm, and the effort of Police enforcement is increasingly turning to more problematic and harmful illicit drugs such as methamphetamine.

On this basis, it is argued that the best way to deal with the presence of cannabis, and deal with the harm it can cause, is to legalise and control it.

The challenge for pro-legalisers is to deal convincingly with the fact that cannabis can – and does – cause harm. Indeed, it is not overstating it to say there is genuine and justified fear about it, especially I have seen amongst parents and educators. The impact on young users can be devastating; the health risks for young users are significant.

We also know that, even in the current prohibitionist environment, the incidence of driving under the influence of illicit drugs, including cannabis, is rising. There is fear that legalising the substance will result in an even higher incidence of drugged driving.  Likewise, many employers fear that the incidence of workers being at work under the influence will rise, and this will put workplace health and safety at risk.

Those are not unreasonable fears.  A more permissive environment can easily signal a relaxation of the rules everywhere.  Pro-legalisers need to respond effectively to these fears.

Turning to those who favour continued prohibition, the case for this is that cannabis is a substance which causes harm; it is already present in the community and having harmful effects. Legalising it, no matter how regulated on paper, will lead to more harm, and continued prohibition still offers the best way to minimise that harm.

The challenge for these opposed to legalisation is to say, in light of the harms and risks that cannabis does pose, what other responses we have to minimise or eliminate those harms and risks.

We know the risk to young users, but most older users do consume without suffering harm. How does continued blanket prohibition assist in seriously addressing the risks to the young users?

Likewise with drugged driving; what else, in a totally prohibitionist environment, can we do to seriously address that risk?

How do we operate an effective public health campaign on cannabis use, if the starting point is “well, it’s prohibited so it can’t be possibly a problem”?

These are genuine questions on both sides of the argument.

For the Government, the approach we are taking is that in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum, it will be necessary to have a regime that affords maximum control, so that the obvious risks can be minimised. It is a complex, but very important undertaking.

And so the core elements of the draft legislation we are presently developing are:

  • A minimum purchase and use age of 20;
  • Confining use to private homes and licensed premises;
  • Prescribing conditions for personal growing and sharing;
  • Requirements for public health messaging;
  • Licensing the whole of the supply chain;
  • Restricting marketing and advertising.

Obviously, there is a lot more detail to develop. That is why the cross party group is important. That is why your deliberations here today are important. And that is why public education and the public conversation are crucial.

Because when New Zealanders do to vote in the referendum next year, they must have a clear understanding of what it is they are being asked to decide. That is my challenge, and I and the Government I am part of are determined to meet it.

Thank you for being here today. Thank you Ross Bell and your team from the Drug Foundation for the enormous preparations that go into creating an event like this. Best wishes for your deliberations.

No reira. Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tatou katoa.