OPINION: One of the things pro-cannabis campaigners will tell you is that legalising marijuana will result in harm minimisation.
Maybe they believe this, but I don’t. Based on the probable increased use of cannabis that will result from decriminalisation, it seems inevitable to me that we will see an increase in the negative effects of cannabis use and abuse.
But that isn’t a reason to vote to retain the status quo.
Before we go further, we should discuss the proposed legislation. It is a disaster.
For a start, the market will be overseen by a new governmental agency: the Cannabis Regulatory Authority that has as one of its aims to lower the overall use of cannabis over time.
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This is clearly absurd, although it does have the utility of making this authority consistent with the Privacy Commissioner and Human Rights Commission, which in my opinion actively work against privacy and human rights respectively.
The law itself is so badly drafted one wonders if the people writing it were experimenting with the upper bounds of THC levels when they wrote it.
There is of course the obligatory references to the Treaty of Waitangi, although the interaction between our founding document and the cultivation of an imported plant isn’t obvious.
There is also a surfeit of incomprehensible babble such as the following requirement when considering a licence to grow cannabis: “The generation of a social benefit and building of community partnerships by engagement with individuals, whanau and communities in the design and delivery of their activities.”
Good laws are clear, certain and transparent. This isn’t a good law. It gets worse.
The Authority must prioritise non-for-profit applicants for licences and applicants that can “…demonstrate a commitment to delivering social benefit to the community or communities…”
I mean, why? The idea is to end the failed prohibition of marijuana by allowing pot-heads to buy their weed from a shop rather than a criminal gang, not tack onto a simple retail operation a range of social justice obligations.
We have seen that decriminalisation works, so why are we making the regulation of this particular vice so imbued with other political agendas? Imagine if we attached to liquor stores, vaping retailers, cigarette distributors or brothels the same social justice mandates.
The problem is that the only politicians with the courage to tackle this issue have been the Greens and, as a consequence, we are getting a law written by Greens and with their own unique craziness threaded throughout the bill.
There is also an incredibly complex and onerous regulatory and application process. Having my own unpleasant experience with regulation at the moment, I can assure you that it will prove cumbersome and expensive. Vested interests will seek to capture the Authority and use the regulatory machinery to restrict competition.
But let’s place all of that to one side because ultimately it will not matter. Overseas experience has taught us that states that decriminalise and regulate one year will eventually just deregulate. Most readers will want to know if decriminalisation will reduce the level of harm caused by marijuana. Personally I suspect that it won’t, but the data isn’t clear.
Marijuana is a low-harm product but, like alcohol and cigarettes, making it legal will lead to increased usage and the ill-effects that comes with the consumption of a psychoactive drug.
Commercialisation will inevitably be associated with higher THC, better consistency and thus attractiveness for consumers and, of course, creative marketing attempts that skirt the regulations that will be imposed by the Cannabis Regulatory Authority.
I am not going to make the argument for voting Yes on the basis of reduced harm nor for the benefits of stripping of criminal gangs of a lucrative source of revenue, because I don’t really care about either.
This is a simple issue: do you believe that the state should have the right to use force to stop other people from doing something that you do not approve of?
It is that stark.
There are lots of things that people do that I think, for their own sake, they should not do. Veganism, Scientology and supporting the Blues are all self-destructive activities that I disapprove of. In the past we have passed laws against homosexuality, prostitution and selling booze after 6pm because we believed that such activity was bad for the individual and the community more generally.
We now recognise that, whatever our personal views of these activities, it is outside the legitimate remit of the state to attempt to prevent people engaging voluntarily in such endeavours.
It does not matter if you think that cannabis is bad for those who smoke it. You do not have a moral right to prevent an adult from consuming such a product. It is probably true that other people consuming cannabis imposes a cost on the community that may impact you, but so does infidelity.
The tangential prospect that you may suffer some inconvenience from the poor life choices other people make does not give rise to a legitimate right for you to seek to prevent that person from making poor life choices.
It is also true that there will very likely be increased costs imposed on the public health service from increased cannabis use. Yet, if this is the metric that we use to control our neighbours then we will be shutting down every fast food joint, rugby competition and construction site in the country.
The vast majority of adults who consume cannabis will do so without any negative consequences and a small number will be worse off because they will have easier access to a product that will prove harmful to them.
Those campaigning for a No vote are arguing that the state has a right to violate the freedoms and rights of the former to protect the later. They are wrong.
In a free society people will make choices that you do not like. That is how we know that we live in a free society and it is why I will be voting Yes next month.
* Damien Grant is a regular columnist for Stuff, and a business owner based in Auckland. He writes from a libertarian perspective and is a member of the Taxpayers’ Union but not of any political party.