Book club viewpoints: “No” to cannabis

By Graham Sharpe

Dr Graham Sharpe ONZM FANZCA is a specialist anaesthetist practising in Wellington. His three children will no doubt cancel out his vote in the referendum. He has the three greatest grandchildren ever born.

Two chaps with contrasting views on marijuana are in the same Wellington book club. They share their thoughts on the upcoming the Cannabis referendum.

Here, Graham Sharpe tells us why he’ll be voting “No”.

A declaration – after much thought and reflection I will vote “No” in the upcoming marijuana referendum.

I was tending towards saying no, but the more I see of the proposal and the arguments, the more concerned I become.  The “debate” has been characterised by misleading and, at best, misguided claims by  “Yes” proponents.

I am an anaesthetist.  I know drugs, particularly sedative drugs.  Here are my reasons for voting no.

Harm Minimisation

A worthy goal, and the stated aim of the proposal.  But I am left with the distinct impression that the complex set of rules and regulations will make no difference to the inevitable increase in consumption that will follow a “Yes” vote.

Also, the maximum allowable levels of THC in cannabis products will be set at 15%.  This is 50% higher than in Canada, and their experience tells us this is difficult to enforce.

The Process 

The referendum presents us with a binary choice.  Yes or no.  Legalise, with several caveats, or not.  There is no other option, such as decriminalising possession of small amounts of marijuana.

I am unhappy with this being settled by referendum.  MPs are elected to lead the country, not throw difficult issues back to the voters.  This referendum is an abrogation of political responsibility and a failure of political courage.  The referendum is not linked to a Bill “shovel ready” (to coin a phrase) to go to the House.  If changes are made after the vote, which I think is highly likely, the referendum could be regarded as lacking legitimacy.  And if in a few years’ time we have a change of heart, the powers that be who led us to this will simply walk away.

Thomas Sowell says, “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”  Those who have initiated this referendum think that by putting the matter in our hands, they absolve themselves of responsibility.  We are the ones who will pay for this, and we will rue the day.

“Medical Marijuana” 

Medical marijuana is the herbology of the 21st century.  It is another So Called Alternative Medicine (SCAM) relying on cherry picked data from poor science to support a weak argument.  There may be some instances where marijuana has medical legitimacy, they are vanishingly few.  Anecdote is not science.  Where are the properly controlled drug trials?  Nowhere. 

Thomas Sowell again.  “All too often when liberals cite statistics, they forget the statisticians’ warning that correlation is not causation.”

Yes, I know the referendum is not about medical marijuana, but it is being pushed as an argument in favour of a “Yes” vote by its supporters.


There is a disproportionate effect on the Māori community in terms of prosecutions for cannabis offences.  The best approach for this is decriminalisation.  Any overall increase in cannabis consumption would be likely to further impact on Māori – as some of their leaders point out.


The argument goes that adults can decide for themselves and bear the consequences, or as Enoch Powell put it, “They are free to go to the devil by their own means.”  I have a degree of sympathy for this view, but the problem is that people do not bear the consequences.  Any adverse effects will be borne by the community, especially by the health services and in terms of financial costs.

Criminal Involvement

Do we really believe that criminals will get out of the marijuana trade once it becomes legal?  Are they going to pack up and say, “Our work here is done. Time to go home.”  Of course not.  There will still be an underage market, and a demand for higher strength marijuana.  Taxes on legal marijuana will invite a black market at lower prices.  Canada still has 50 to 70% of its marijuana sales through criminal channels – I doubt New Zealand will be any different.

Consumption Levels

The use of marijuana will increase in the event of a “Yes” vote.  Experience in Canada tells us this will be in two groups.  One is in people of my era – late middle age to elderly.  But more worryingly, is the increase the young, and this has been shown to lead to large increases in cannabis related harm in those same young people.  The fact remains – early use of marijuana doubles the likelihood of other drug use later in life.

The Outcome

How will we measure the success of this policy if it is implemented?  Or more importantly, what will failure look like?  As with many initiatives in the social area, by the time it is apparent there is a problem it will be too late to “put the genie back in the bottle.” 


The most cynical aspect of this matter is that of revenue collection.  We are told that legalising cannabis will result in a tax goldmine.  So, Government coffers will be swollen by the increasing consumption of cannabis, at the same time the official policy is, apparently, harm reduction.  One thing I have learnt about predictions of taxation revenue – they are always wrong.  Canada again – the anticipated taxation income is less than half of that predicted, mainly due to the continued black market undercutting the legal products which generate excise.


The health aspects of an increase in cannabis use are understated by “Yes” vote supporters.  As a doctor, I have real concerns about these.

Make no mistake.  Cannabis is not a benign drug.  It has severe potential for long term harm, especially when used by the young.  The Surgeon General in the US is on record as saying, “I don’t want anyone to mistake what I’m saying as implying that these products are considered safe for general adult usage.”

Cannabis use by youth and young adults increases the risk of psychotic illness later in life.  Long term use can cause a chronic lack of motivation, with resulting effects on education, employment, and the care of children.

Cannabis use in pregnancy has long term potential for harm, including psychiatric illness later in the baby’s life.

Legalisation in Colorado saw a 100% rise in ER attendance for acute marijuana intoxication.  This was of particular concern in accidental ingestion by young children.

We are moving towards a smoke free country but voting to allow more widespread smoking of cannabis.  This does not make sense. Prof Richard Beasley, a leading New Zealand health researcher (and, for openness sake, a friend of mine) says smoking a single joint is the equivalent of five cigarettes in terms of lung damage.  Vaping cannabis as an alternative delivers large doses of THC very quickly, with attendant risk of sudden intoxication.

Then there are the questions of driving, operating dangerous machinery and making important decisions under the influence of cannabis.  Or for that matter giving an anaesthetic or performing surgery.  These will all inevitably increase following a “Yes” vote.

I find it fascinating that psychiatrists, a professional group not exactly renowned for reactionary views, are not advocating legalising cannabis.  Our mental health services are under chronic strain through lack of funding and staff.  Increased use of cannabis can only make this worse.

To Sum Up

I will vote “No” in the referendum.  My reasons are largely health related, but the more I look at this, the wider my concerns become.


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