New Zealand Public Health Heavyweights Push for Cannabis Legalization

The editorial argues that voting yes in the referendum will provide "evidence-informed controls around a substance that is widely used and unregulated."

New Zealand's top medical experts have thrown their weight behind the campaign to legalize recreational cannabis, in an editorial published in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

In the editorial public health experts and specialists from numerous fields—including public health, health promotion, epidemiology and addiction treatment—publicly announced their support for the upcoming referendum, while urging New Zealanders seize this "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to legalize cannabis.

"We're particularly concerned that Māori have borne the brunt of biased enforcement and the negative health effects of illegal cannabis. We know that Māori are three times more likely to be arrested and convicted of a cannabis-related crime than non-Māori with the same level of use. This is an unacceptably high price to pay, especially for a policy that is not effective at reducing harmful use." University of Auckland Maori Health Professor, Papaarangi Reid

This public push in favor of legalization arrived shortly after early voting began, with a recent poll demonstrating that public support is currently split down the middle.

The editorial argues that voting yes in the referendum will give New Zealand an "opportunity to place evidence-informed controls around a substance that is widely used and unregulated."

"A yes vote is not a vote in support of cannabis — it is a vote in support of placing public health controls around a substance that is currently left to the black market to manage."

"If the referendum is successful, it will result in public health legislation with world-leading goals and aspirations that could serve as a model for other countries," the editorial stated.

Another argument mounted in favor of legalization was the adverse effect that cannabis policing has had on the Māori community—who account for only 16% of New Zealand's population—but experience triple the arrest rate for possession compared to non-Māori citizens.

According to University of Otago Professor, Michael Baker, "it's time to take the same fresh approach to cannabis law and put public health first."

"Our prohibition model for cannabis is outdated and doesn't work. Supporting law reform is about reframing cannabis use as a health issue which opens up new, more effective ways of minimising harms caused by this drug."

Regardless of which way the referendum goes, the outcome is sure to have a significant impact on New Zealand's drug regulation landscape, as the country's most recent Health Survey found that 15% of the population—amounting to approximately 590,000 adults—has consumed cannabis in some form over the last 12 months.

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Hugo Gray
Hugo Gray

Hugo Gray is a Melbourne-based journalist with a body of work that covers a diverse range of topics, including immigration law, sex technology, and now the rapidly expanding cannabis industry.

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