It’s the conversation that never goes away. Whether you love it or loath it, marijuana is one of the most debated drugs in New Zealand.
This particular debate has been raging on since its illegalisation under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. Though it does seem in recent years people are becoming more open to the benefits of marijuana, both medicinally and economically, currently we as tax payers are forking out thousands of dollars yearly in the legal fight against it, when there is potential to be making a large profit from it.
In a poll conducted in August 2016 by the NZ Drug Foundation, a majority of the public voted that they would like to see a change in the cannabis laws.
Of the 15,000 people surveyed: 33 percent believe a small amount of cannabis for personal use should be legal and 31 percent believe it should be decriminalised. Only 31 percent were in favour of retaining prohibition.
Maybe it’s time New Zealand came to a decision once and for all.
Where do we stand
Presently in New Zealand cannabis in its plant form is considered to be a Class C drug. If you are caught in possession of cannabis it could result in a maximum of three month’s imprisonment or a $500 fine. If you are caught to be cultivating cannabis you could be looking at seven year’s imprisonment, and selling or supplying cannabis carries a maximum sentence of eight years in prison.
Cannabis oil and hashish are considered as Class B drugs; though they come from the same product, they are a more concentrated form of cannabis, which gives them a higher potency, and therefore they carry a much tougher sentence.
If you are caught supplying or selling hashish or cannabis oil to a person under the age of 18 the penalty is a maximum of 14 years in prison.
These penalties are what cost tax payers thousands of dollars.
According to a Ministry of Health survey showing drug-related prison sentences between 2007 and 2011, 1,050 people were sentenced for cannabis possession costing tax payers $12, 250 per person.
That’s a total of $12,862,500 of tax payer’s dollars on marijuana-related sentences alone within that timeframe.
These costs do not include police costs, court costs, legal aid costs, probation costs or social costs, it is only the cost of imprisonment.
The Dangerous Drug Act, which was passed in 1927, only put a stop to recreational marijuana use in New Zealand – it still allowed marijuana for medicinal purposes.
This was quashed under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.
As it stands the only form of medical marijuana available in New Zealand is Sativex.
Sativex is a formulated extract of the Cannabis sativa plant. It contains cannabinoids THC and CBD as well as other minor cannabinoids and non-cannabinoid components.
The drug is in spray form which is created to be used orally and absorbed under the tongue or in the cheek linings.
This particular product is largely intended for people with multiple sclerosis (MS) who are finding that traditional medicines are not relieving their symptoms.
The product however is very rarely used. An annual prescription of Sativex will cost more than $20,000 because Pharmac does not subsidise the drug. The Ministry of Health must approve the prescription before access is granted. Because of the high cost of the medication many people are opting to use the drug illegally.
The medicinal benefits of cannabis are often the driving force behind this debate.
Former Union leader, Helen Kelly, was a major advocate for making medicinal marijuana available for those in need. She was very public about her illegal marijuana use during her battle with lung cancer. She used marijuana for pain relief after exhausting all other options. Helen Kelly died in 2016.
Medicinal marijuana advocate Rose Renton has been on the same crusade. Her son Alex Renton died in 2015 after being in an induced coma for three months battling prolonged seizures caused by what is thought to be an auto-immune disease.
He was the first patient in New Zealand to be allowed use of cannabis oil (CBD) as treatment for his illness while in hospital.
After receiving CBD Alex’s seizures stopped, he was breathing on his own and eating home-cooked meals. Rose believes had he been given access to CBD sooner he would have survived.
Now Rose fights every day to make CBD and other medicinal marijuana products available to everyone who needs them.
Ultimately she would like to see cannabis decriminalised and eventually regulated.
“If you’re a person with a condition that cannabis can treat and your GP says ‘yes it will help’ you can then find a medicinal strain of marijuana and grow it yourself. We need to take the criminal element out of it which will also get it off the black market in the streets so the sick people can then gain access,” she says.
“In time it should be regulated across the board, with better education. You drive through Blenheim and see acres and acres of wineries, you can go to the dairy at 18 and buy cigarettes, we’ve got pharmaceutical companies that you pay for your prescriptions, those three industries they actually all kill and are all profit-based industries in New Zealand.
“Cannabis doesn’t kill; we need education and it needs to be regulated.”
Rose sees so much potential in New Zealand for marijuana. Aside from the medicinal benefits she sees, industrial hemp can be used in a number of commercial ways, including making plastics that don’t harm the environment and hemp when planted is known to absorb toxins from the soil.
“We can draw toxins out of the ground and regenerate our rivers and lakes – New Zealand has the perfect conditions for it. Marijuana grows here beautifully.”
The issues we face
NZ Drug Foundation director Ross Bell knows better than most the issues marijuana causes.
There have been studies done in Dunedin and Christchurch including Professor David Fergusson’s longitudinal study which brought to light the effects on people who use marijuana heavily from a young age.
It has a real impact on their outcomes in school which then flows onto their job prospects and their likeliness to end up on the benefit increases. There are potential health risks as well says Ross according to the study.
Though the issues with cannabis may be more obvious in younger people it’s not an issue they face alone.
Ross says they set up a self-help page on their website after noticing people around the age of 40 were seeking help.
“They would wake up and realise they couldn’t even head down to the shop without smoking a joint beforehand.”
New Zealand is among some of the higher users of cannabis in the world with half of the country having tried it at some stage in their lives Ross says.
“The problems we see though are in the people that use it heavily. People don’t see it as a drug you can get hooked on like meth but people certainly become dependent on it.”
So as far as making the drug legalised, there are certainly implications that need to be considered
Associate Minister of Health, Hon Peter Dunne, says “the Government’s view is that widespread availability of cannabis is likely to have detrimental health and social impacts for a significant proportion of the population”.
But even he sees the medicinal benefits.
“The lack of cannabis-based products is disappointing and frustrating, but a clinician-led pathway exists to access existing products, for those whose specialists believe such products would have therapeutic benefit.”
His main concerns around cannabis as a medicine are the limited evidence available to support its efficiency and the limited availability of the pharmaceutical grade products.
The gateway drug
We’ve all heard the argument that marijuana is the gateway to harder drug use.
Ross believes this statement is hard to prove.
“Is there a component in marijuana that causes people to turn to other drugs? Science would say no, there is nothing in cannabis that makes people go on to other drugs.
“People who use drugs are generally risk takers, they might go onto more dangerous drugs but certainly the majority don’t.”
He refers back to Professor David Fergusson’s findings.
“The potential gateway effects could be because it is an illegal drug and you are having to purchase it from a tinny house, and at that tinny house you may come into contact with people who want to sell you other drugs, and that could be the gateway effect.”
The NZ Drug Foundation deal with different aspects of drug use on a daily basis, but are still in support of decriminilisation of marijuana.
“We’ve seen in countries that have decriminalized, such as Portugal and some states in Australia, there’s lots of models where marijuana has been decriminalised in some way, and that hasn’t necessarily led to increase in use. In fact there’s either no change in use, or potential decrease, so I don’t see it as a problem we actually support decriminalisation.”
Legalising marijuana however is a completely different issue which Ross believes could go very wrong but if we are smart it could be done right.
The last thing he wants to see is marijuana becoming a commercial product like alcohol.
So what now?
It’s clear when it comes to this debate there is a lot to consider.
So over the next few issues we will continue to delve deeper into marijuana in New Zealand.
We will look at legalisation vs decriminlisation and the effects those options could potentially have on us. We will delve further into what the marijuana industry could do to our economy and what it’s done in places overseas as well as how it could affect your workplace.
The issue of marijuana in New Zealand effects every one of us in one way or another.
It’s likely to be a hot topic come election time so whether you love it loath it having a clear understanding of it, will hopefully bring this long-lasting debate to a close, once and for all.
By Natalia Rietveld