A civilised argument on cannabis – Newsroom

Cannabis Referendum

Proponents of yes and no votes in the upcoming cannabis referendum faced off last night debating the pros and cons of legalising recreational cannabis use

“It’s a pleasure to disagree with good people,” was the opening comment to a debate on the upcoming referendum on legalising cannabis.

The comment, made by Russell Brown, a proponent for the ‘yes’ campaign kicked off a remarkably civilised argument. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark joined Brown on the ‘yes’ couch. Alongside her sat Porourangi Tawhiwhirangi, a grower from the East Coast, with 25 years of experience under his belt.

On the ‘no’ couch, Matt Tukaki, a mental health advocate, Anglican minister Rev Hirini Kaa and Ronji Tanielu, who described himself as a nobody, but delivered what was described as “one of the best speeches heard from somebody who says he’s a nobody”. 

From left: Rev Hirini Kaa, Ronji Tanielu, Matt Tukaki, Russell Brown, Helen Clark and Porourangi Tawhiwhirangi.

The topic may have been fraught, but there was plenty of respect in the room with no interjections, and compliments flowing between the couches. Brown, praised the intellect of Kaa “you’re really smart”. Tukaki, shot Clark an: “I love you Aunty Helen. I just want to put that out there in case you get mad at me later over drinks.”

The debate, the first of the Korero Mai debates run by Shane Te Pou and Tau Henare, was held at the Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen in Auckland. 

The irony of the venue was not lost on Clark as the argument about legalising a mind-altering drug was tossed around.

“We’re at a bar for heaven’s sake. How many people have had a beer?”

Her stance is that cannabis is the recreational drug of choice for a large number of people. Alcohol, also a recreational drug choice of many, comes with higher levels of harm. 

Clark said she doesn’t use cannabis personally, citing childhood asthma, and doesn’t advocate its use. 

“I respect people’s personal choice. When it’s a choice to use something that’s less dangerous than legal drugs on the market, I don’t want to stand in the way of that choice.”

Her preferred approach – regulate responsibly: “Bring it in from the cold, acknowledge the reality, put the rules around it.”

Brown talked at length about proposed rules. “The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill is very careful” he said, before reeling off rules about age limits, bans on advertising, no shop fronts, limits on potency, public consumption and a ban on packaging which might be attractive to children. He also spoke of the Bill’s rules around market share, where no supplier can have a market share of greater than 20 percent, and the allocation set aside for micro cultivators.

“It’s the opposite of big cannabis.”

For Tanielu, the “nobody” from Mangere who is voting ‘no’ in the referendum, the worry is close to home. He fears legalisation could open the door to business interests impacting his community. He cited a Berl report which estimated how many cannabis retailers might eventuate if cannabis is legalised. For Auckland this was 125 stores. 

“I bet money that they’re gonna be in a community like mine, that’s already dealing with pokie machines and liquor stores on every single corner.”

He said communities don’t have enough of a say in where liquor stores and pokies go. “because it’s captured by businesses”.

Rev Kaa is also from Mangere and had a similar concern. 

“Every single corner has a Bottle-O, has a Super Liquor store. They are pumping, they’re pumping, non-stop, alongside the pokies.”

Kaa felt the draft Bill does have good regulation, but he worries that over time these could be eroded by business interests influencing politicians.

“There is no way of entrenching these regulations. There is no way of making them money proof and racism proof.”

Racism and the referendum

The issue of racism cropped up throughout the evening. While 80 percent of people have used cannabis before the age of 25, it’s Māori who are disproportionately arrested for drug offences. A law change last year which said a prosecution should not be brought unless required in the public interest had not made much difference to the number of prosecutions, or the rate of Māori facing prosecution.

It’s a topic raised regularly by people in favour of legalisation. In what was a calm debate, this issue caused sparks.

From Tanielu: “I actually think this referendum really boils down to middle class and wealthy Kiwis who ideologically want to legislate their ability to be libertine, in this case to smoke weed, but package it in a way that it’s going to help poor brown communities like mine.”

From Tukaki: “I am sick and tired of the debate in the public domain being about what Māori want and what Māori could do to benefit from the legalisation or the referendum.”

Simmering beneath Tukaki’s frustration was the opinion there are more important discussions about disproportionate arrest rates for Māori and institutional racism to be had.

“Apparently the panacea – the answer to the question – is this referendum that will pull short the number of our kids getting arrested. I say, ‘bullshit’.”

He asked all voters, including ‘yes’ voters, to “not stray away from the honest public discussion we must have about the institutions that put my people down more than pull them up.”

Kaa also talked about systems and racism, citing statistics about poorer health outcomes for Māori. 

“I love the idea of making it [cannabis] a health rather than a crime issue. But our health system is broken for our people. It’s just broken.”

He urged people to think hard about the wider issues the debate raises.

“Don’t think this referendum is going to solve it … there are good people speaking on both sides because these problems are much deeper than the one being presented tonight, don’t let that go.”

From the ‘yes’ couch Tawhiwhirangi, the grower from the East Coast, had a different view. His family grew to survive. “When we talk about Māori going through the system and getting charged and not getting jobs – I’m one of those statistics.”

Medicinal cannabis

One topic which appeared to have some agreement from both couches was the role of medicinal cannabis and the need for it to be more readily available.

Only one product is approved by Medsafe, but it’s not funded by Pharmac. Treatment can cost over $1000 per month.

Tukaki was in favour, suggesting a Therapeutic Goods Administration, similar to one in Australia be set up to widen access to a range of products.

Clark suggested medicinal products need to be accessible without going to a doctor, something which legalising for recreational use would allow. She said she’s been approached by numerous people who have told her cannabis has been the only thing which has helped them.

“Voting this down, isn’t going to take the product away. It’s there. Can we be open about it, open about the pros and cons and deal with the way we deal with tobacco and alcohol?”

Brown said tens of thousands of people are already illegally using cannabis “more or less therapeutically”.

“Let’s not make those people criminals.”


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