There will be a referendum on cannabis reform at the same time as the 2020 general election. There will be a yes or no question on the legalisation of cannabis use, but the wording of the proposed legislation is not yet known.
The criminal justice system is racist. This has to be our starting point. Māori are more likely to be stopped, questioned and searched by police than non-Māori. They are more likely to be arrested. If arrested, they are more likely to be charged. If charged, they are more likely to be convicted. If convicted, they are more likely to be jailed. Jail time is psychologically scarring and sets someone up for problems all through their life. It is hard to get work again with a criminal conviction on your record. Poverty, abuse, hopelessness and long-term unemployment are all products of the prison system. This system is biased against working-class people generally, and especially prejudiced against Māori. It is destructive of human potential.
Our attitudes to drug laws, therefore, start from our opposition to racism and the racist justice system. The amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act that allows greater police discretion to consider a “health-centered or therapeutic approach”, for us, is no solution. It will be little help to Māori, who will still face discrimination. As Fiona Hutton, a criminologist and expert on drug laws, points out, police discretion powers can actually increase inequalities. In a racist society, Māori are less likely to find “discretion” working in their favour. Current laws on cannabis give powers to the state to harass workers. Police can search your home, car, or person without a warrant if they have “reasonable grounds” to suspect you have illegal drugs. This is a huge intrusion on our liberties, and is used disproportionately against workers, youth, and people of colour.
Cannabis use is a fact of life in New Zealand society. Most people will have used cannabis by the time they are in their mid-twenties. Around ten percent of the adult population, according to the Ministry of Health’s most recent figures, use cannabis regularly, with 87 percent of them reporting no concerns from others about their drug use. Just like alcohol and tobacco, cannabis is a drug people use in a variety of ways. Many of these are harmless. Some self-destructive use is connected with coping with harm: alienation and the pressures of living in a capitalist society. The harm is going on anyway, but only cannabis is targeted by the law’s prohibition regime. Decriminalisation will take a power away from the state to regulate, control, and oppress workers.
Much of the debate has focused on medicinal marijuana, especially after Helen Kelly’s courageous stand publicising the cause as she was dying from cancer. Many living with pain report that cannabis helps them cope with their symptoms, and they should be able to access the drug without fear of prosecution and imprisonment. But we should be cautious about limiting arguments for cannabis decriminalisation to its acceptable uses in treatment. Recreational users – people who enjoying smoking marijuana as some people enjoy drinking red wine – should not face arrest either. Prohibition makes criminals of thousands of ordinary people. No one pretends that cannabis can be eradicated from New Zealand; it is a part of the culture. What the current laws provide is power to the police. We should campaign to see that go. Besides, the most damaging drug of all – alcohol – is knitted in to the fabric of our society, and its makers are in the top ranks of the ruling class. Doug Myers, one of the prime movers in the right-wing reforms of the 1980s, enjoyed his millions thanks to Lion Nathan. He was richly rewarded for making a drug thousands used to cope with alienation. Small-time cannabis farmers, on the other hand, go to jail.
We should not have a utopian attitude to cannabis, either. Socialists oppose state powers to meddle in areas of our lives that do not harm others, such as drug use. But we also recognise that drug use is spurred in part by alienation, and is connected often to anti-social and self-destructive behaviour. There will be no better world made by marijuana small businesses, hemp production and dope smoking, as the cannabis reform organisation NORML’s materials sometimes seem to suggest. We are against prohibition because it is a tool of racism and state repression, not because of any virtue cannabis has over alcohol.
We will campaign for a yes vote in the referendum next year. There is a chance to push back against police powers. For this we should thank the Greens for winning the referendum in their negotiations over joining the Labour-led coalition. But there are wider issues in play: to do with racism, discrimination, and state power. If those get lost in discussions of legalisation and regulation an important part of the real issues facing workers will not be faced. The left needs to bring this wider context into the campaign.