07 Oct Legalising the Devil’s Lettuce – Cannabis Referendum
First published on the RNZ website 2.10.20
When people talk about how they’re going to vote in the upcoming cannabis referendum, it is usual practice – even for those in favour of legalising the Devil’s Lettuce – to clearly state they don’t touch the stuff themselves, actually officer. Fair cop – it feels risky to tell everyone you do something illegal, even if that something has been dabbled in by most New Zealanders at some point in our lives.
In a nod to that tradition, I will say these things: cannabis is not my drug of choice but I was at university in the 1980s and I’ve worked in the entertainment industry for over 30 years. I’m voting yes in the referendum in small part because I’d like to ditch my current drug of choice – alcohol – and replace it with a nice, soothing, legal cup of cannabis tea.
As a balm, cannabis strikes me as a distinctly feminine drug. Despite the popular image of cannabis users being a bunch of blokes getting blazed on the strongest strain of weed they can cultivate, there is a whole other world of Mary Jane proponents whose names are more likely to be Mary and Jane. There is a network, for example, of Green Fairies in Aotearoa – mostly women who grow and supply the herb to assist with anxiety, provide pain relief, and offer a natural pick-me-up or calm-me-down. Before it became illegal here in 1927, the story goes that Mother Suzanne Aubert (currently in line for a sainthood) included the plant in her remedies and sold it to help fund her community work.
It is an entirely human thing to seek out substances that change our mood – every culture finds a leaf or berry, vegetable or fruit that they can tootle about with to come up with vodka, pinot, coffee or cocaine. Something that shifts us from our factory settings to either a more or a less elevated state. When I gave up the booze (or “reassessed my relationship with alcohol” in popular parlance) for a couple of months this year, the most challenging part was finding something to do at 6pm each day to mark the shift from “work time” to “me time”. Best I could come up with was a mocktail and taking my bra off, only one of which is acceptable in polite company. Apparently.
So after a lot of reading and a little experimentation (not currently, officer, feel free to have a look around) I fully plan to embrace cannabis tea whenever I can do that without legal risk. Though frankly, the risk of someone like me being searched, arrested, charged, convicted and imprisoned for having a Tupperware container of something that looks a lot like oregano is pretty slim.
And that is the bigger part of the reason why I’m voting yes in the referendum. Cannabis offences put more people into New Zealand prisons than any other drug, and they are not people like me, but a disproportionate number of young Maori men. A recreational drug that presents little legal risk to someone like me if I were to indulge could have a catastrophic legal effect on someone like my grandson if he were to have a tootle about with it when he grows up. The hypothesis that cannabis is a “gateway” to harder drugs has been largely debunked, but it sure as heck is a gateway to prison.
The proposed legislation could make it less likely a teenager would become a regular user – with cannabis out in the open and frank conversations and education about the harm to young brains, plus stringent regulations on the strength of the cannabis on sale, we would all know what we’d be buying and why it is a terrible idea for anyone under the legal age of 20. Cannabis would be more regulated than either alcohol or cigarettes – you won’t see it advertised, and its use would be confined to private homes or specially licensed premises.
And unlike alcohol or cigarettes, there would be a limit to how much you could buy at one time – 14 grams or about 30 joints. As a daily limit, that might have us clutching our pearls, but it’s a restriction, not an invitation. When I go to the supermarket, I don’t eat all the food in my trolley that day, right? So if you are buying cannabis once a month, that’s how much you can buy on your shopping day – and that would cost around $200. Also, we can, in theory, buy a fatal amount of alcohol whenever we want – but we don’t, because we’re buying that pinot noir to take the edge off our day, not end it. Also, you can’t die of weed.
Like many drugs, cannabis is neither perfectly safe nor extremely dangerous – it is somewhere in between. The current prohibition of it makes it hard to talk about safely finding that middle ground over a calming cup of tea.