Not that many people are criminalised for cannabis, are they? Do we really need to change the law?
About 3,000 people receive a conviction for cannabis offences every year - and more than half of those are for low-level offences such as possession and use. The people convicted are mostly young, Māori, and male. And just one conviction has a major impact on someone’s life and their opportunities to get a job, travel and even credit.
How dangerous is cannabis actually?
Most people who use cannabis do so without causing much or any damage to themselves. But a small proportion experience negative impacts, and in some cases these can be severe. Impacts can include anxiety, depression, memory loss and mood swings. Cannabis can affect brain development, and increase the risk of psychosis and other mental illnesses.
Cannabis impairs driving, especially when combined with alcohol. It also carries a risk of dependency in around one in 10 users. In other words, cannabis can cause harm - so our laws need to focus on reducing that harm, not increasing it as they do now.
Tight public health regulations give our best chance at reducing cannabis-related harms. If we regulate we can control potency, packaging, price and portion size. Public education can influence how often and how much people use.
Will legalising adult use of cannabis lead to more people using cannabis? And what about young people?
We might see overall cannabis use go up a bit, especially in the early days. But with the right public health regulations, we should see harmful use go down, especially over the longer term. This means drafting a law that works to protect young people, and other vulnerable groups (the 20 percent of people who consume 80 percent of the cannabis).
In a regulated market, we can design our system to encourage people to consume less often, and consume less potent products. We can also offer help earlier to those who are struggling with their use, or are likely to run into problems down the track.
What age should people be able to buy and use cannabis?
The referendum will ask whether people aged 20 or over should be able to buy and use cannabis. The government chose that age because they are concerned that cannabis can affect brain development and is particularly risky for younger users.
There are good arguments for setting the age limit at 20, and there are also good arguments for 18. For example, 18-20 year-olds are some of the highest consumers of cannabis and would benefit from the health protections that will come with legal sales (such as potency and portion control). There is no simple answer to the age question, and everyone is likely to have a different opinion.
Whatever age we go with, we need to ensure we don’t end up burdening those who use under age with heavy criminal penalties.
Can the number of shops selling cannabis be restricted?
Yes. If we end up allowing cannabis to be sold in stores, the government can and should restrict the number of shops in each community. Communities might even decide they don’t want any licensed sellers in their neighbourhood. We can also put restrictions in place about opening hours and location (e.g. distance from schools). These regulations can be built into the law.
There are many ways to regulate cannabis. Rather than assuming it would be sold like alcohol, we could choose instead to set up government-run shops, or even not allow shops at all (just grow your own). By the time of the referendum, we expect the government to be really clear about what kind of model we will be voting on.
What about drug driving?
Drug driving will continue to be a concern if cannabis is legalised. But it's not clear to what extent, if any, legalising cannabis would make the existing issue of drug driving worse. Evidence from overseas is so far inconclusive about whether legalising cannabis increases road accidents or not.
Unfortunately there are currently no reliable breath or saliva tests to detect whether someone is impaired after using cannabis. Instead, Police carry out impairment tests when they have reason to suspect a driver has taken drugs. Impairment testing is an internationally validated tool that is pretty reliable. But science is progressing all the time on this one, so watch this space.
We would also like to see a public education campaign around drug driving, that would use some of the same techniques that have been so successful in changing behaviour around drunk driving.
What will adult use of legal cannabis mean for access by patients to medicinal cannabis?
Medicinal cannabis and recreational cannabis will have separate laws and regulations. Patients need access to particular medicinal cannabis products, with different combinations on active ingredients, to help relieve their symptoms. These products are likely to be very different from recreational products.
However people who currently use natural cannabis for therapeutic purposes, such as pain relief, will certainly benefit from legal access.
What will the referendum question be?
The government is working to draft a bill in advance of the referendum, which will take place alongside the general election in 2020. The bill will set out all the details about how a new cannabis law could look. Voters will be asked to vote yes or no on whether they want the government to take this bill through parliament. So voters will have a really good idea of the type of model the government is proposing when they go to the polls – ka pai.
The government has already announced some key principles. For example, the bill will set out to minimise the health harms that cannabis can cause, especially to young people. The age limit for purchasing cannabis will be set at 20. Read more about the government’s model for cannabis here.