Book club viewpoints: “Yes” to cannabis

By Greg O’Connor

Greg’s early years in the Buller, growing up under the shadow of Denniston and schooled by Nuns in Granity, provided a solid launching pad for a life of policing, including as an undercover cop living around criminal gangs, a detective, and subsequently as President of the Police Association. In the latter role he established and chaired the international body of police unions, which facilitated unique access to the drug regimes of many jurisdictions worldwide, which, with his policing experiences, has helped form his views on Cannabis legalisation.
He is currently the Labour MP for Ōhāriu, but his views are his own on this matter.

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, Greg O’Connor tells us why he’ll be voting “Yes”.

As with most of what we are required to decide in life, there is no right or wrong answer to the question of whether or not to legalise and regulate cannabis in New Zealand. There is simply a best option. 

There are many reasons why people should not use cannabis, mostly for the potential medical and psychological damage which regular use can cause to at least a proportion of users.

In answering young people who ask for my view, particularly those under 20, I start with the refrain “don’t touch the shit until you are at least 20. It will really mess up a proportion of you and can cause lifetime psychological issues”.

I quote the Otago University longitudinal study which finds a proportion of the population are psychologically predisposed to being adversely affected and should never partake.

So there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that in an ideal world, we would simply evaluate the medical evidence and continue to prohibit cannabis use and possession.

Oh if that life were that simple.

The reality is that we are using cannabis and damage is being inflicted not only on individuals, but also on society, through its use and illegality.

The question then beggars, how does the damage being done through cannabis use, balance with the damage being done to society, through leaving the supply of cannabis in the hands of criminals.

And this is where the focus of the referendum should be in my view.

Yes there are a plethora of reasons not to use cannabis. However the referendum is not about whether we should use it, it’s about whether we should legalise and regulate it.

A debate based only on whether or not we should use cannabis, ignoring the fact many already are, disregards the important issues this referendum and the proposed legislation is intended and designed to address; namely minimising the harm to indviduals and society or leaving its supply in the hands of criminals.

A compromise often suggested is decriminalisation.

Let me say I believe decriminalisation is absolutely the worst option, as it will have all the negative effects of legalisation, but will not address the supply or quality control issue, leaving it in the hands of criminals.

Even in the Netherlands, where cannabis use contrary to common belief is not legal, but is  permitted in a very Dutch way, supply is in the hands of the criminals.(there is currently a proposal that local Councils could grow the product).

A coffee-shop owner is “permitted” to have 500 grams for sale, but cannot legally source the product. That owner generally must source from criminal gangs.

This is locally described as “permitted out the front door, but not legal in the back door”.

Incidentally in Portugal, another oft quoted jurisdiction in the New Zealand discussion, nothing is legal, just prosecuted within the health system and outside the criminal justice system following apprehension.

I have been fortunate to visit both the aforementioned countries, along with Colorado in the USA, to experience the reality of their cannabis regimes.

The difference with Colorado is that they have a fully legalised and regulated cannabis industry, from seed to weed as they say.  Uniquely, they have a quality control system, where a product must be what it purports to be, with accompanying consumer protection, and a determination to keep criminal groups out of the industry. 

Back then to the question facing us in the upcoming referendum; do we believe we can best prevent and mitigate the negative impact of cannabis use by continuing to criminalise every aspect of its presence on the country?

Or do we believe that by regulating it, we are in  a better position to both gain control over its quality and availability and at the same time raise revenue for preventative, educational and treatment programmes?

But what sways me comes down to my experience as a police officer. I am extremely apprehensive about the rise of the power, wealth, and sphere of intimidation of criminal gangs in New Zealand, made considerably worse by the arrival of Australian gangs post 2010.

Disrupting their income has got to be at the heart of disrupting their organisations.

The illegality of cannabis continues to provide significant income for gangs, and also integrates cannabis supply with their other activities. This brings cannabis users into contact with the suppliers of far more insidious drugs, especially Methamphetamine.

Removing cannabis revenue from their businesses won’t by itself collapse their power or empires, but it does separate them from potential customers for their other illegal products.

The legalisation and regulation of the cannabis they are supplying now represents an opportunity to at least dent their wealth and power.

And so, on balance, and applying the organised crime dimension to the yes/no option, I have decided I will vote yes in the referendum.

To me it represents the best option.


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