Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark says cannabis won’t make your teeth fall out or turn your hair green – and criminalising it is an injustice to thousands of people every year.
And she says it’s not as bad for your health as legal substances tobacco or alcohol, a claim backed up by an expert panel’s work that was published yesterday.
Her comments come on the back of a new poll showing a tight race for the NZ September referendum on legalising cannabis for recreational use, with 48 per cent support in favour and 43 per cent opposed.
Clark, who has previously thrown her support behind a ‘yes’ vote, made the comments during a Drug Foundation- and Helen Clark Foundation-hosted webinar this morning called “The case for ‘yes'”.
“Let’s get real here. This is a widely-used recreational drug that is less harmful to individual health than tobacco and alcohol,” Clark told the webinar.
“Most Kiwis will use it in their lifetime. They know their teeth don’t fall out and their hair doesn’t go green. Most people don’t use it very often, unlike alcohol.”
The proposed legislation includes an age limit of 20, redistribution of tax into harm reduction, health and education programmes, a ban on all marketing and advertising of cannabis products, and a limit on potency.
A regulated legal market would provide quality control and ensure users would know what they’re buying, Clark said.
“It’s just a no-brainer to stop wasting our taxpayers’ money with police helicopters hovering over the Kiwi bush, hounding ordinary citizens who are having a joint of cannabis for recreation rather than a glass of wine.
“Let’s stop all that. Stop wasting the money on the police, the helicopters, the prosecutors, the courts, the jails. This has to be the worst use, actually, of what we waste taxpayers’ money on.”
More than 2000 people were charged with low-level cannabis offences in 2018, and Māori are three times more likely to be arrested and convicted of a cannabis-related crime than non-Māori.
“This is wrong and it is worrying that mainly young people find their lives blighted by a conviction which is less harmful than either tobacco or alcohol,” Clark said.
A expert panel of scientists, academics and health and social experts found that the proposed legal framework had the potential to address the systemic racism in the status quo.
University of Auckland psychiatrist Dr Hine Elder, who was on the expert panel, said there were 600 to 800 alcohol-related deaths in New Zealand every year – but there have been no known cases of toxic cannabis deaths.
She noted a sharp decline in use among 15- to 17-year-olds in Canada, where recreational cannabis has been legal since October 2018.
This may be because it might be harder to access, “it’s less cool because it’s legal”, or due to more education and harm reduction campaigns, she said.
UK drug policy expert Steve Rolles, who has worked on drug policy in Canada, Uruguay, Mexico and Luxembourg, said the referendum wasn’t about whether you liked or disliked cannabis.
“This is about dealing with reality. The reality is that cannabis is here and lots of people are using it whether you like it or not, and regardless of prohibition.
“This is the chance to choose, instead of leaving it in an unregulated market, to bring it within the ambit of government and put it in the control of responsible government agencies acting in the interests of the public good.”
He said the proposed legal framework wasn’t perfect – he questioned the ban on online sales and the purchase age of 20 – but he rated it nine out of 10.
“Mistakes will be made but they can be ironed out. Nothing is set in stone.”