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Bill Ralston: Why Mike Hosking is wrong about cannabis

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Legalising, taxing and regulating is the best approach to cannabis in this country.

Bright and articulate Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick recently made the point, in support of her push to legalise cannabis, that studies showed up to 80% of Kiwis had smoked dope by the age of 21. I was part of that large majority, although these days I prefer to sip a robust shiraz.

That figure of 80% is a little puzzling, as recent polls show more New Zealanders oppose the legalisation of cannabis than support it. One would think, with so many having got quietly stoned at some point in their life, that up to 80% of us would back the idea of removing the stigma and criminality that surround its use.

A clue to that turnaround surfaced in the somewhat vitriolic radio debate on the issue between Swarbrick and that spokesperson of right-thinking folk, Newstalk ZB host Mike Hosking.

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Calling the 24-year-old “naive” and criticising her lack of life experience, he admonished her to “wait until you have kids”. The Hosk perfectly illustrates the “do as I say, not as I do” attitude of many of the 80% who once smoked the dreaded weed, but are now doting parents who fear their kids will be struck with “reefer madness” should they light up a joint.

Those horrified parents might like to dwell on the fact that their children, at some stage, are likely to try illegal marijuana, despite the opposition of Mum and Dad, exposing themselves not just to the long arm of the law, but also the even longer appendage of the black market, which is run, in many cases, by criminal gangs. Their local dealer might also suggest they try methamphetamine, synthetics, ecstasy, acid or some other narcotic.

The strongest argument for legalisation is that it removes cannabis from an underground sales and marketing racket and reduces people’s risk of exposure to other illicit pharmaceuticals that are likely to do them a lot more harm than a joint.

Dealers have long recognised the potential to grow their market into other, more lucrative drugs. I spoke to a Black Power member recently and he informed me that cannabis was increasingly hard to buy, as gangs were constricting the supply of it because they could make much more money selling pot-seekers meth and synthetics. Swarbrick echoed the eminently sensible NZ Drug Foundation when she said drugs are a health issue, not a criminal one.

It is thought any legislation to legalise cannabis will allow products to be bought and consumed in specially licensed premises in much the same way as alcohol is bought and sold in pubs. The law would also allow minimal amounts to be grown and used at home. Commercial growers would be licensed and, no doubt, taxed.

Despite the significant health risks of alcohol, few people would seriously advocate placing a prohibition on it. It is better that the sale and consumption of booze are, to a large measure, subject to government control than it be produced and circulated solely through the criminal underworld.

Tobacco is a well-known killer, but rather than banning it and creating a black market, governments have chosen to heavily regulate its use and sale and to tax it.

So it should be with marijuana. Legalise it. Regulate its sale and consumption. Control its potency levels. Stick health warnings on it. Ban it being smoked in public places.

If the referendum goes the way that Hosking wants, it won’t bother me, as I’ll stick to the shiraz. But if Swarbrick succeeds, I think we will have a saner, healthier (if slightly stoned) society.

This column was first published in the June 29, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.