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The Real Deal Cannabis Reform
TOP Drug Reform - Regulate The Harm Not The Stigma.
In 2017, TOP advocated for legalising, regulating and taxing cannabis.
In 2020, voters will face that choice for themselves.
In general, we are comfortable with the government’s proposals. TOP will be campaigning for a “yes” vote.
However, if elected TOP would work to improve the proposed legislation. In our view, local areas should have greater say over how cannabis is legalised in their area. Some areas may want no sales, which is fine as long as there is an online option. Some areas may want a more liberal approach to cannabis legalisation, such as the existence of cannabis cafes. In our view, a degree of local variation is important and should be welcomed.
Wider Drug Reform
TOP is prepared to back wider drug reform, where the evidence suggests there are gains. Our principles are:
- We should regulate all drugs according to actual harm.
- Drug rehab is a very cost-effective investment for the government. Anyone who wants help should be supported, and we think this work should take place in the community.
- We should expand the implementation of the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts (that have so far only been trialled in Auckland and Waitakere) that focus on addressing the underlying addiction issues of offenders. We need to increase funding for more community rehabilitation providers, to increase the number of offenders who can be sentenced to treatment, not prison.
- New Zealand should be closely watching international clinical trials and contributing to the evidence base on the use of currently “illicit drugs” - e.g. psychedelics in psychotherapy. We should also be prepared to adopt those that are proven to work in a therapeutic framework. Early trials are showing promising signs in this area.
- Drug testing should be based on impairment, not whether a substance can be detected in a person’s body.
Currently, the law doesn’t treat all drugs consistently. Some drugs like alcohol cause more harm than cannabis does, yet they are legal and lightly regulated. TOP’s approach to drug reform is about reducing the total harm caused by drugs in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Page last updated on 3-Sep 2020
TOP takeaway: There is no significant evidence to suggest that smoking cannabis leads to other drugs. It is suggested that the illicit status of cannabis has had more effect of exposing users, especially young people, to harder drugs.
Popular in the 1970s/80s was the hypothesis that cannabis was a so called gateway drug. There was great concern that trying cannabis could be a gateway that caused users to go seek stronger and stronger highs. Those fears arose from the combination of conditional probabilities (children who use cannabis are much more likely to progress to harder drugs) and sequential order (cannabis usually predates use of harder drugs). But those facts together do not imply causality.
Over the years the validity and relevance of this hypothesis have been challenged[i]. There is now evidence[ii] that suggests that complex interactions among various individual/ predisposing factors and environmental factors (e.g., peer-pressure, family influence, drug availability, opportunities for drug use) drive drug seeking, drug use/abuse, and drug addiction, and these interactions are not necessarily tied to cannabis use alone. It could therefore be suggested that there is a causal path from greater cannabis use to use of hard drugs that is social or psychological, however there is no significant evidence that suggests there is a biochemical link[iii]. The social aspect may simply exist because cannabis is illegal, which forces people to engage with criminals in order to procure cannabis.
The only drug with strong evidence for the gateway drug theory is nicotine, and that is because people sometimes use cannabis and cigarettes together. In fact, instead of the gateway effect, the evidence is stronger that cannabis can reduce the intake of other drugs.
TOP Takeaway: The evidence shows that legalisation of cannabis has no impact on the overall levels of use. Cannabis use is prevalent in society and most of those that choose to use it have done so regardless of its legal status.
We understand that this may be slightly counterintuitive however the evidence shows that criminalisation of cannabis has had no significant statistical impact on reducing use, nor is there any evidence that decriminalisation increases use.    Under a fully legalised and commercial market (there are only a small number of examples where this is the case, one being Colorado) evidence suggest that legalisation has decreased use of cannabis amongst youth, presumably thanks to increased education. For adults there has been a small increase of cannabis use and related outcomes, although this seems to be driven by a falling price as growers scale up production.  It is important to note that TOP’s policy has much stronger regulation and price control than these full commercial models.
Based on this information we can say that the reason the usage rates should not change is because cannabis is so prevalent in society that those who choose to use it have done so regardless of its legal status and will continue to do so.
TOP Takeaway: Drug driving is already an issue. The current system used by police is seen as best practice, and will continue to improve as new evidence and tests become available. As long as usage rates do not significantly increase we would not expect to see an increase in drug driving.
There is clear evidence from controlled laboratory trials that cannabis use reduces psychomotor performance, increasing the overall risk of accidents particularly while driving. This has been a key issue raised in international consultation over cannabis reform. However, due to the current prevalence of cannabis, impaired driving is not a new challenge. It is a criminal offence that exists today and is a challenge that must continue to be addressed, irrespective of how or when cannabis is legalised. The current system that is used by police is robust, and the best available measure until testing science is developed further[i]. Therefore, in terms of policy the policing of this issue should not significantly change.
Debate continues about the ideal (from a policy perspective) blood and/or saliva levels to indicate marijuana intoxication while driving. However a saliva test cannot show impairment only the presence of a drug, which does not necessarily imply impairment. Innovations are in development in various jurisdictions in the United States and abroad, including defined levels for impaired driving and how these can be analysed by saliva sampling, but as mentioned, these are not yet considered robust.[ii] In comparison, the appropriate levels deemed safe to drive for alcohol took years to develop, it is hoped that as discussions about cannabis become more common, and its legal status changes, this testing can be developed at a much faster rate.
TOP advocates continuing the current system. Drivers that have given reason to be considered under the influence, such as through driving erratically, will be given a roadside impairment test, and if failed will be blood tested. Evidence shows that the overwhelming majority – 95 percent of those who were asked for a blood specimen – tested positive for drugs, indicating police are judging driver behaviour well and not over-referring drivers.[iii]
TOP Takeaway: Again, workplace testing is already an issue. We advocate safety-critical workplace testing only in conjunction with observed impairment, as per drug driving. That way people with residual cannabis in their system who are not impaired are not unfairly punished.
The prevalence of cannabis and its impact on the workforce, like drug driving, is already a common, and divisive issue. Under the current system drug testing is legal for those who work in a safety critical environment, however it must be part of the employee's condition of appointment. Drug testing measures currently are technically limited and often used as a punitive tool; as with driving, current drug tests do not screen for impairment; they only indicate past use, which is a major limitation. This is especially significant as cannabis has the longest detection period for urine based drug tests, which can show the presence of cannabis long after the adverse effects have gone (up to a week for single use, while habitual use lasts for several months). [i]
Testing raises two main issues:
- Gaming the system through users predicting when they will be tested, or changing their drug use to undetectable substances; and
- Users testing positive and being punished when the adverse effects are no longer present.
For these reasons, TOP advocates safety-critical workplace testing only in conjunction with observing people for impairment. Non-safety critical testing is not necessary – it is much better just to observe for impairment and respond with constructive support where a problem is identified. Research on random workplace drug testing found the chance of being detected did not change the number of people involved in incidents due to impairment from alcohol or drugs, and that testing alone is ineffective at improving health and safety.[ii] Testing on workers drug use does impact the amount of users found, but does not show a change in the number of injuries in the workplace. Therefore it can be concluded that the testing only impacted drug use that was not causing impairment in the workplace.[iii]
Air New Zealand is leading the way on this issue with drug testing considered only a very small component of a comprehensive workplace policy. Their focus has been on building a safe culture promoting peer responsibility. In their sector, self-reports and help-seeking are promoted and common.
TOP Takeaway: we support allowing personal cultivation of two plants per person under strict conditions.
Apart from the commercial production, distribution and retail supply chain, personal cultivation provides a potential alternative means for consumers to access cannabis.
Personal cultivation is a very emotive issue for many people. Notable arguments for its prohibition revolve around the health and safety risks it can pose, the ease that it can be directed towards illicit markets and the potential exposure to children. There are also sound arguments for allowing it, outlining that growing can be done safely and responsibly.
There are a number of examples of countries and states who have allowed users to grow their own cannabis and therefore we have considerable experience to draw on. It seems overall the effects of allowing personal production are small.[ii] A regular comparison is with the current system for home brewing alcohol and it is a common argument that those who choose to cultivate will largely be law-abiding adults who grow a limited number of plants in a safe and responsible manner for their personal use. Wine-making, home brewing of beer and curing personally grown tobacco is undertaken primarily by advocates and connoisseurs in the post-prohibition era.[iii]
One limitation of grow-your-own is that it suffers from a feast-or famine issue. If you are going to grow any at all, it is hard not to grow too much for one person. An experienced grower can produce 300 to 400 g from one large plant, which is a year’s supply for even daily users.[iv]
With all this considered and a clear understanding of the risks associated with personal cultivation, the following safeguards would create a reasonable framework for enabling small-scale cultivation of cannabis for personal use:
- Set clear limits on the scale of cultivation permitted (maximum of two plants per person), with a maximum height limit (100 cm);
- Prohibit unlicensed sale (although some degree of sharing among friends and relatives is inevitable);
- Prohibit the manufacture of concentrates in homes using volatile solvents and chemicals;
- Establish guidelines to ensure cultivation is in spaces not visible or accessible to children;
- Regulate the market to enable a legal source for starting materials (e.g., seeds, seedlings, plant cuttings).
It should also be kept in mind that current illegal large scale operations have risks including:
- Mould, when large-scale growing occurs in buildings not designed or properly equipped to do so;
- Improper electrical installation and associated fire hazards;
- Unchecked use of pesticides and fertilizers; and
- Break-ins and thefts.
These outcomes all result in dangers to neighbouring residences and first responders. Following legalisation the demand for illicitly produced cannabis should significantly decline, which in turn will reduce the number of large, commercial-scale illicit growing operations and the risks they pose to public health and safety. [i]
TOP Takeaway: Anecdotally, many individuals suffering from a variety of serious medical conditions derive therapeutic benefits from both THC and CBD, however the available evidence is insufficient to establish medical benefits. Legalisation will help gather evidence to ascertain the medical benefits.
The medicinal properties of cannabis, cannabis and THC remain disputed, partly because their legal status has prevented them from being subject to rigorous clinical analysis.
As many stakeholders appreciate, the formal clinical evidence base is incomplete, however there is agreement that many individuals suffering from a variety of serious medical conditions report therapeutic benefits from both THC and CBD[i]. Scientific data indicate the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs, primarily THC, for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation.
Although there are many medical-cannabis dispensaries in places such as North America that distribute cannabis products and derivatives with varying levels of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids, these particular products have not been the subject of clinical trials. The anecdotal evidence however about high-CBD extracts reducing seizures—especially among children—has been convincing and likely explains why more than ten states in the USA enacted CBD laws in 2014.[ii]
Studies such as those run by the Cochrane Collaboration provide what are arguably the most rigorous assessments of the evidence for medical applications of cannabis and the chemicals it contains. These studies found that few available trials meet their methodological standards for inclusion and that the available evidence is insufficient to establish medical benefits.
This lack of evidence hasn’t stopped other political parties such as Labour and the Greens supporting legalising cannabis for medicinal use. This position has no basis in the evidence, but appears to be a way of pandering to the demand for liberalising cannabis laws without taking the political risk of backing full legalisation. As usual it appears Establishment Parties cherry pick the evidence to suit their polling.
The current lack of strong evidence reflects the enormous obstacles of doing cannabis research. Given the proliferation of medical-cannabis systems it is apparent that more and better clinical trials are needed. Helpfully as the stigma surrounding cannabis is slowly removed and more countries are looking at forms of regulation these studies should become more frequent and robust.
[i] op cit Canadian Task Force on Cannabis Legislation
TOP takeaway: We expect the legalisation of cannabis will allow for these regulations around hemp to be relaxed so that a commercial hemp market may prosper.
Hemp can effectively be considered a low THC strain of the cannabis plant. It has long been cultivated for use in commercial and industrial applications such as construction materials, rope, clothing, oil, and food. Current laws in New Zealand have recently been reviewed and products made from hemp seeds are now deemed safe for human consumption by the Ministry of Health. This is viewed as a small concession due to the other potentially useful components of the hemp plant. The main issues with commercialising hemp is its close relationship to other forms of cannabis, namely those that have high levels of THC, and that CBD (which is present in hemp) is still regulated as a controlled drug by the Ministry of Health.
We expect the legalisation of cannabis will allow for these regulations around hemp to be relaxed so that a commercial hemp market may prosper.
The evidence is insufficient to say definitively the effect that cannabis has on other drugs however early signs suggest it can reduce the intake especially of opiates.
Substitution can be categorised as the choice to use one drug (legal or illicit) instead of another due to issues such as:
- perceived safety;
- level of addiction potential;
- effectiveness in relieving symptoms; and
- access and level of acceptance.
The substitution of one psychoactive substance for another with the goal of reducing negative outcomes can come under the banner of harm reduction. Studies have shown that medical cannabis patients have been engaging in substitution by using cannabis as an alternative to alcohol, prescription, and illicit drugs. [i]
Some studies have found that medical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates [ii]. Overall there is a data hint of substitution for opiates. There is little conclusive consensus regarding the direction that effects have on alcohol, but experience in the United States should soon give more data on this[iii].
Taking all these factors into account there are potentially promising signs regarding the substitution effect that cannabis has on the use of some drugs, however the data is far from definitive. Worthy of note is a research report from the Ministry of Health showing the estimated personal harm by drug group. We are all increasingly aware of the damage that methamphetamine does to society[iv]. To put a dollar value on it this report states this harm at $184,200 per dependant user of Amphetamine-type stimulants annually. Therefore any anecdotal evidence that can suggest cannabis may reduce the harm caused by meth is worthwhile investigating further.
While it is legal if you are a parent or guardian to supply alcohol to your kids we do not advocate this for cannabis. It will remain an illegal, yet decriminalised offence. To reduce overall harm all efforts should be made to not smoke around children. Second-hand smoke is also a problem, which is obviously not an issue with alcohol.
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