New Zealand laws on cannabis use are not working, a public forum in Timaru on the Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill was told on Monday.
The forum’s five invited speakers were all in favour of decriminalisation and more education about the drug but disagreed on whether the bill was the way to do it as the country shapes to vote in a referendum on the issue on September 19.
The panellists, from a variety of backgrounds and opinions, put their views to more than 80 members of the public at the Gleniti Baptist Church event organised by the Timaru Christian Ministers’ Association to generate discussion ahead of the referendum.
Two panellists – research and policy consultant Dr Geoff Noller and Make it Legal NZ’s Mike Smith – were in favour and three – youth worker James Coyle, counsellor Aaron Ironside and registrar of rural hospital medicine Dr Natalie Cadzow – were against the bill.
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Dr Noller said education had been stymied because it was illegal and it had also been hard to research it for the same reason. There were about 600,000 users in the country, he said.
The law as it stands was not a deterrent to usage with 95 per cent of those convicted continuing to use, Smith said, pointing out the bill, if implemented, could save $180 million in police resources.
“Those that disregard legalities are the most vulnerable,” Smith said.
He said regulations around tobacco had reduced its use, and he anticipated the same with cannabis.
Both Dr Noller and Smith thought passing the bill would allow for better control and more education.
Ironside could not see how any new law which allowed a person to grow only two plants could be policed.
Using statistics from other countries that had legalised the drug showed how usage and access by those under age had increased, he said.
When it came to a business model addicts were the best customers, he said.
“The reality of commercialisation is the total market grows. The black market and the legal market go into competition with each other.”
He said since US state Colorado legalised cannabis in 2014, the $5.5 billion industry had become a $7b one with cannabis retail shops in poor neighbourhoods and the equivalent of one store for every 47 customers.
Commercialisation also worried Dr Cadzow as she did not think big business cared about customer health.
Cadzow expressed her concern that the health sector was already under resourced and the bill if it went ahead would increase the pressure, and she did not see how the plan for a smokefree 2025 goal would work if cannabis use increased.
She said research suggested once legalised, paediatric ingestions doubled and could cause comas and respiratory arrest. Use during pregnancy could cause low birth weight, learning difficulties and affect brain development.
Coyle explained how he had seen young people lack motivation through cannabis use and questioned whether an age limit of 20 would make a difference to access.
“Do we want greater access? Do we want it normalised?” he asked.
Monday’s forum was the first of two on upcoming referendums. A second, on the End of Life Choice Act is planned for August 10, at 7pm at the Caroline Bay Lounge.
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