Weekend Herald

Le­gal­i­sa­tion sends the wrong mes­sage

- John Roughan Marijuana · Marijuana Legalization · Narcotic Drugs · Society

Af­ter the dilemma of choos­ing a gov­ern­ment for the hard years ahead and vot­ing no to as­sisted sui­cide, it will be al­most fun to turn to some­thing as friv­o­lous as cannabis.

I will prob­a­bly vote no be­cause the crim­i­nal law sends the clear­est pos­si­ble health mes­sage with­out be­ing rig­or­ously en­forced. Le­gal­i­sa­tion sends com­pletely the wrong mes­sage, as we saw with party drugs a few years ago.

When you le­galise some­thing you own it — and you pay for the prob­lems.

If drug users are harmed it is self­in­flicted harm. I can think of about 100 more wor­thy calls on my com­pas­sion and my tax­a­tion.

But worse than crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion or le­gal­i­sa­tion would be a law that is nei­ther one nor the other, that pre­tends to be le­gal­i­sa­tion while at­tempt­ing to re­strict a drug more ef­fec­tively than the crim­i­nal law has done.

It im­plies so­cial ap­proval of the sub­stance while try­ing to keep it in check.

Part of me hopes this ref­er­en­dum sup­ports the Cannabis Le­gal­i­sa­tion and Con­trol Bill be­cause it would be amus­ing to watch Labour and the Greens try­ing to fight mar­ket forces. They would fail and it wouldn’t mat­ter very much, it’s only cannabis.

Maybe they would learn a les­son that would im­prove their ap­proach to al­co­hol and to­bacco. Many peo­ple won­der why we are be­ing in­vited to le­galise a plant for smok­ing when we are urged to be smoke- free by 2025.

The rea­son is that cannabis of­fers left- wing politi­cians and pub­lic health pro­fes­sion­als a blank can­vas for their reg­u­la­tory de­signs.

The bill be­ing put to the ref­er­en­dum runs to 150 pages of breath­tak­ing de­fi­ance of the laws of sup­ply and de­mand. The le­gal mar­ket for cannabis would be ruled not by con­sumers, but by a com­mis­sariat to be called the Cannabis Reg­u­la­tory Author­ity.

It would set an an­nual cap on the quan­tity of cannabis per­mit­ted to be com­mer­cially cul­ti­vated. Then it would al­lo­cate a quota to each li­censed pro­ducer. None would be given more than 20 per cent of the to­tal. These leg­is­la­tors hate and fear big busi­ness.

They don’t much like prof­itable busi­ness ei­ther. Sec­tion 88( a) of the bill com­mands the author­ity to “pri­ori­tise not- for- profit ap­pli­cants ( for li­cences) that can demon­strate a com­mit­ment to de­liv­er­ing so­cial ben­e­fit to the com­mu­nity”.

They sound like liquor trusts that are given a lo­cal monopoly and largely in­ter­nalise their prof­its.

The author­ity would award li­cences for ev­ery con­ceiv­able ac­tiv­ity as­so­ci­ated with cannabis at ev­ery point in the pro­duc­tion chain. It would not be able to give an op­er­a­tion a li­cence to be both a whole­saler and re­tailer.

Re­tail out­lets could be ded­i­cated shops or li­censed for con­sump­tion on site, a cannabis “cafe” that could not sell al­co­hol as well.

The num­ber and lo­ca­tion of out­lets would be de­cided by the author­ity, which “may” con­sult res­i­dents and groups in the lo­cal­ity. The out­lets would not be al­lowed to draw at­ten­tion to them­selves with sig­nage that gave any hint of their purpose. No pretty leaf on their frontage. They could not ad­ver­tise their prod­uct in any way and must keep it out of sight.

It all begins to sound like the regime that moved party drugs off the coun­ters of nov­elty stores and con­fined them to a strictly lim­ited num­ber of li­censed out­lets.

Surely the reg­u­la­tors re­mem­ber what hap­pened?

The out­lets, al­lowed no point- of­sale ad­ver­tis­ing, be­came dingy, non­de­script dives where furtive, hooded youths were com­ing and go­ing through­out the day. The blight on the com­mu­nity was fiercely re­sented and the out­cry was soon on tele­vi­sion, along with the an­guish of par­ents who could sud­denly blame the Gov­ern­ment for the plight of their off­spring who had been pop­ping those pills for years.

You le­galise a drug, you own it.

Since le­gal sales of cannabis would be lim­ited to peo­ple over 20, who could buy no more than 14 grams a day, its po­tency would be con­trolled and its price would con­tain tax and levies to pay for its reg­u­la­tion, there would still be a black mar­ket.

On po­tency, the bill con­tains a cu­ri­ous direc­tive for the author­ity to “have re­gard to re­duc­ing prob­lem­atic use of cannabis or cannabis prod­ucts, es­pe­cially for Maori”.

And on pric­ing, the bill says tax can be used to maintain a price if it “drops be­low the level con­sis­tent with the purpose of this act, ow­ing to an over­sup­ply of cannabis or the avail­abil­ity of less ex­pen­sive cannabis”. Bet on it.

For a long time the case for le­gal­i­sa­tion was made by cheer­ful chaps in dread­locks and bea­nies who reck­oned their drug was fairly harm­less. Then the cam­paign was taken over by the pub­lic health in­dus­try who told us it was by no means harm­less.

The doc­tors are right, but I miss those char­ac­ters in dread­locks and bea­nies. They weren’t ask­ing for ther­apy, they just wanted a smoke.

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