Cannabis referendum: Be wary of replacing one 'Reefer Madness' with another

by The Listener / 09 January, 2019
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Photo/Getty Images/Listener illustration

Anyone who dares express reservations about the growing momentum to liberalise recreational cannabis use in New Zealand is apt to be directed to one of the substance’s most revered and celebrated enthusiasts. “Lively up yo’self and don’t be no drag,” sang Bob Marley in a reggae anthem that sums up the zeitgeist.

The current criminalisation of cannabis has few defenders, either for its effectiveness in curbing consumption of the drug or its fairness in punishing use proportionately. There’s plenty of evidence that alcohol and tobacco, opioids when abused covertly and even the unregulated modern food supply do more harm to society than the sensible and moderate use of cannabis.

But as our MPs finalise the details of one or more referendums to test the public will for liberalisation, they’d better lively up themselves with a close study of overseas legalisation experience. It’s hardly euphoric, as statistics from American states where recreational use is legal indicate:

  • Car crashes have increased by up to 6% compared with states that have not legalised, according to both United States highway safety and insurance industry data.
  • Rates for use by all people aged 12 and over are nearly twice as high as in non-legal states. Underaged users – those 12 to 17 – are now nearly 50% more likely to have consumed cannabis in the previous month, according to the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  • In Colorado, which legalised the drug, initially for medicinal use, in 2010, youth cannabis-related emergency hospital admissions quadrupled in the decade to 2015.

In Canada, which legalised in October, the province of Ontario was already experiencing an increase in cannabis-related emergency cases, from 449 in 2013 to 1370 last year; in Alberta, the rise was from 413 to 832. These included a doubling in paediatric cannabis poisonings over the five years.

These stats are a sign that legal, regulated supply has emboldened, rather than displaced, illegal unregulated supply – and that this is not your mum and dad’s Mary Jane.

The active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is typically far more potent than in the weed previous generations smoked, according to Canadian Public Health Association spokesman Ian Culbert. The dope on Canada’s illicit market can have 5-40% THC. Although recreational cannabis is newly regulated and dose-restricted for safety, the underground market continues apace, with high-strength oil increasingly being added to confectionery, biscuits and the like.

The justice authorities in territories that have legalised have found the imprimatur of legality has removed much of the fear and caution from the black market.

As to road safety, Canada is training some police in cannabis-impairment recognition. But as to how much is safe, one Ontario medical officer of health, Hamidah Meghani, has recommended no one drive within six hours of taking cannabis. But she admits that’s only an average estimate, as people are affected differently.

So, in summary, that’s a continuation of illicit, unregulated dealing and greater overall usage, more car accidents, more hospital admissions, more poisonings of children and teens and more underaged use of cannabis.

It’s these last two trends that ought most concern New Zealanders when they make their referendum choices. Neuroscientists still maintain THC is detrimental to brain development up to a person’s mid-twenties. In Canada, the cannabis age limit in nearly all provinces is 19. The new law imposes up to 14 years’ imprisonment for supplying to the underaged. But bluntly, that’s still the state sanctioning five or six years’ impeded brain development.

As risible as the old 1950s “Reefer Madness” campaigns may now seem, young people are facing a growing barrage of sophisticated marketing strategies to persuade them to get stuck into a legal substance that impairs prefrontal cortex development, and with it their optimal adult logic and impulse-control faculties. With 40 states in the US yet to legalise cannabis, the industry is spending big money to promote the drug. Never mind joints and bongs, they’re already flogging cannabis ice cream, yogurt, lollies – even cannabis beer, given a new US$100 million joint venture between Budweiser maker Anheuser-Busch and Tilray, hitherto a medicinal cannabinoid processor.

That the legal cannabis industry is heading for a global boom may delight the majority of young and old, but we have a responsibility to make sure it doesn’t come at the cost of our young people’s futures. Call this a drag, but it’s not half as regressive as risking replacing one form of ill-informed “Reefer Madness” with another.

This editorial was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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