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The Helen Clark Foundation's Kathy Errington looks at some of the latest evidence emerging about drug law reform globally and makes the case for a 'yes' vote in the 2020 cannabis referendum

The Helen Clark Foundation's Kathy Errington looks at some of the latest evidence emerging about drug law reform globally and makes the case for a 'yes' vote in the 2020 cannabis referendum

This week’s Top 5 comes from Kathy Errington, executive director of public policy think tank The Helen Clark Foundation. Errington looks at some of the latest evidence emerging about drug law reform globally.

As always, we welcome your additions in the comments below or via email to

And if you're interested in contributing the occasional Top 5 yourself, contact

The Helen Clark Foundation will release a paper on 4 September about ‘the case for 'yes' in the 2020 cannabis referendum’. Keep an eye on our website here.

Cannabis use is a reality in New Zealand, and the results of our current policy approach damage our health, worsen social equity, and drive crime. In our paper, we argue that New Zealanders of all political persuasions should follow the evidence of what works and what doesn’t. The evidence points to a vote in support of cannabis legalisation and regulation in 2020.

This does not mean necessarily moving to a commercial market. New Zealand can look to a range of examples – including the state monopoly model from Uruguay where the government is the only legal buyer of cannabis, and it is then sold exclusively through registered pharmacies. A tightly regulated commercial market is an alternative approach, with license limits imposed for individuals and companies. We believe this decision about market structure deserves more public attention and debate.

Our view is that the New Zealand Government should adopt an approach to cannabis use which sees it as a health and social issue and not a criminal one. Regulation should seek to prevent the emergence of major corporate interests which would have a profit motive to undermine public health objectives. In this respect New Zealand can learn from its experience with regulating tobacco and alcohol.

1) After legalisation of cannabis use rates barely changed in Canada – the only group that increased slightly were those older than 65. 

2) This article on ‘how to save drug users lives’ from the British medical journal is an important contribution. Scotland is the overdose capital of Europe. Yet British law is currently stopping Scotland from opening safe spaces for users to take drugs, where drugs can be tested for strength and clean needles provided.

The author argues that it's clear moralising about perceived intrinsic wrongs in taking drugs and blaming or punishing patients for having drug use disorders are not effective or ethical ways to reduce harm. 

3) The recent misuse of drugs amendment act is another step away from NZ pursuing a purely prohibition based approach to drugs. 

4) At some point the deaths NZ has seen from synthetic cannabis – without us ever changing our policy approach - will become a national scandal, I hope it is soon. Synthetic cannabis use may well drop if legal cannabis is available. The “iron law of prohibition” refers to how the criminalisation of drugs leads to the consumption of more potent substances, with both suppliers and users not willing to take risks with the law for low-potency substances, and they may prefer to carry smaller and more easily concealable substances.

Thus, more potent illegal drugs appear on the market, such as has been the case with fentanyl and its derivatives as street opioids in the United States and Canada, the emergence of the synthetic cannabinoid “spice” in the UK to replace plant-based cannabis, and the levels of THC reaching 17% in Europe (up from 8% a decade earlier).

We think a 'yes' vote in the referendum in 2020 will allow for the sale of quality-controlled cannabis. It will help to lift the stigma and discrimination which pushes people into risky behaviours and into buying more potent, if smaller, quantities of synthetic cannabinoids. And, most importantly, it will allow for better scientific research and findings on problematic use of synthetic cannabinoids. 

5) Under our current approach to cannabis, cases like Kelly van Gaalen’s could continue. In 2015, Kaikohe community leader Kelly van Gaalen was sentenced to two years in prison for the possession of cannabis from two plants with no evidence of commercial supply. No complaint was made - the police came to the home after Kelly’s husband reported a violent home invasion by three armed men.

When police officers arrived, they found a bucket of dried cannabis weighing 684g. As the upper limit set by Parliament for possession for personal use is only 28g, Kelly’s case was treated as possession for supply. According to colleagues her absence caused community regeneration projects to “grind to a halt”. Her incarceration also took her away from her young family. 

Picture: TVNZ.

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684 grams really is quite a lot of cannabis though.

It's only enough to fill one joint for Snoop Dogg.

e: 684g appears to be only for personal use.

Thank you Shore thing ....... 2/3 of a kilogram is one hang on a lot of dried leaves ( or buds) . Clearly she was supplying a controlled substance


The one thing I've never understood about the National Party's approach to drug use is to support criminal organisations. They seem to be continually fighting against ill-considered laws that have done the same damage as alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.

Why does the National Party want to persist with the failed war on drugs??

One factor could be the influence of the alcohol industry, which could see revenue impacted by people reducing their alcohol intake in favour of cannabis.

It appears that quite a few MPs like consuming all too much alcohol. That could also be affecting their perception, and probably cognitive skills.

Because 'dictator" ............. we have spent the past 50 years warning people to stop smoking tobacco to the point we now have taken steps to outlaw it .

Dope is a mind altering substance, much stronger than tobacco , and we should never allow it to be legalized


It's a mind altering substance, in that generally a user feels relaxed, and a lightened mood. They might find increased enjoyment of music, or a film could be particularly funny.

I've seen plenty of people have a few drinks and turn into belligerent losers who look for a fight. The only danger someone using cannabis poses is to the inside of your pantry.

The links between alcohol and domestic violence, or even the combination of alcohol and the All Blacks losing with domestic violence.


Plenty of downsides to cannabis. I'm an advocate for decriminalisation but it does worry me somewhat that many for the cause casually dismiss the risks involved.
Have you ever know a stoner who has run out of pot? their demeanor changes quite dramatically when they cant get cannabis. I've known a few that get anxious when running out and have had paranoia and sleep deprivation after years of heavy use
Also, the risk of drug driving and being high in dangerous working environments not only endangers the user but also other road users and work colleagues.
So to say that the only danger of pot is the munchies is extremely naive, but by the same token, i fully agree that it has profound medicinal properties when used carefully

Yeah, I've known a few. I'm quite a heavy coffee drinker myself, and I can get the same way when I go without. It's not really a reason to make coffee illegal though is it.

so your saying coffee and cannabis are interchangeable?

I lived with an addict for 6 years and everything you have described was true of his behaviour; he would regularly drive stoned (often smoking pot in the car), could become aggressive, paranoid and irrational. I also have several whanau who are addicted to this crap and I often wonder how their lives would have turned out had they not been consumed by dope. I have no issues with decriminalisation or improving access to medicinal marijuana, but we must not kid ourselves - this stuff is harmful, and I hate to think if how many more tamariki will be exposed (in the home) to marijuana, if it is legalised. The drive for legalisation has nothing to do with decreasing Maori arrest or incarceration rates (unless it will magically get rid of systemic bias and racism within the existing systems), as minority groups will always be arrested at higher rates for one reason or another - this has never changed. Maori suffer from higher rates of mental health disorders and psychosis (resulting from epigenetic transmission via historic/intergenerational pathways), so we have a greater chance of being negatively affected by marijuana, which is highly correlated with psychosis, schizophrenia, and depression. This is all about making money from an already marginalised group and reducing the threat of arrest for middle-aged white professionals.


Humans have sought out mind altering substances for the entirety of our history, I don't think we'll be stopping any time soon. Personally I favour alcohol, colleagues rely heavily on caffeine and sugar, a few friends like weed to relax every now and then or MDMA for a good time. Some take weed for period pain. No doubt you'll have your own favourite.

Virtually all the people who want to take drugs already do. The harm from the drugs exists already, we can very easily reduce the harm from the black market, funding of crime, adulteration of drugs, and punishment of recreational users, just by regulating rather than criminalising. We even get a new tax stream out of it, instead of the money flowing to gangs. There are now many examples of this happening, and working, around the world - let's hope we don't get too far behind.


I went to the chemist the other day as I was coming down with a bad cold and tried to buy a codeine based remedy. Perfectly legal and available over the counter until next year. They refused to sell it to me no matter how much I pleaded. They offered to sell me useless placebo products instead which is a worse 'crime' in my opinion.
It's no wonder people resort to illegal drug purchases.

So Helen says "YES" please we would like to DAMAGE the brains of our youth below 25 PLEASE !


It's good to hear you are opposed to alcohol sales to people aged under 25.

Two wrongs dont make it right ............ there are restrictions on the sale of alcohol and tobacco for b=very good reason .

These are mind altering , dangerous and health damaging substances .

When I was young I saw the effects of excess MJ use on people , it is just awful

Adding dope to the mix by legalizing it is going to be a big mistake


With around 80% of New Zealanders having smoked weed at some point it's not being added to the mix. From what you've stated it sounds like you would support mental health and addiction services. Is that the case? Would you support that in favour of sending people to prison where they will be encouraged to learn new skills that would bring harm the community?

As to whether it would be a big mistake that doesn't seem to be the case in the US. Legalisation has taken weed out of the hands of drug dealers and that's restricted access to children/teenagers.

Resources should be focused on highly damaging drugs and stamping out as much organised crime as possible. I'm always unimpressed with Police arresting someone in possession of weed when we have a methamphetamine epidemic. Legalisation and the current decriminalisation will better focus those resources where they will provide the most benefit.

We should probably do something about the heavy cocaine consumption amongst the wealthy in Auckland. Look at what that cocaine use did to house prices there.

“Legalisation has taken weed out of the hands of drug dealers and that's restricted access to children/teenagers.”
Yep now they just need a fake ID to get it, and phew they don't have to deal with those dishonest drug dealer types anymore

Sarcasm doesn't have any impact on statistics.

80%, I'm not buying it....doesn't add up with the current 55% of people opposing the govt legislation.

Where's the actual verified survey ? I expect its one of those college surveys where all the kids tell the truth. I remember those well.

It's actually from the Drug Foundation.
“By the age of 21, 80 percent of New Zealanders have tried cannabis at least once. And 10 percent developed a pattern of heavy use,”

Yes I found that as well but posting that lacks any detail of the source of the survey or any details of the survey.

They are a foundation that gets income / donations from this type of thing so hardly unbiased.

If it is in fact true why is the support for legalising so LOW

I'm undecided, on one hand I've never seen anyone become violent when smoking cannabis, unlike alcohol. But like alcohol it impairs judgement and will result in innocent lives lost on the roads and in the workplace.

Also tobacco products cause so many health issues and as a nation we're aiming to become smoke free so legalising cannabis would seem to go against. impairs judgement...should then have little effect on politicians.

The biggest part of it for me is that I think everyone should be able to make the choice for themselves. If you don't want to use it, that's totally fine - but I think it's quite selfish to deny someone else the right to choose. For me, the government needs to provide a bloody compelling argument that this drug should be illegal, otherwise individual freedoms win the day every time.

That is a tax agreement not a drug one. Don’t deny someone the right to choose what to do with the money they earn ( if you want to pay more tax feel free to do so, but don’t force others to ). Drugs take lives, a recent article in the herald mentioned something like over 2 thirds of road deaths in NZ involved at least one party under the influence of weed.

2/3 road deaths involved one party under the influence of weed? Pull the other one mate.

No, the government can actually make a compelling argument for taking my earnings as tax revenue - hospitals, fire and emergency services, roads, education, superannuation, etc. are all pretty critical to a functioning society.

I call bullshit.

The only way this is plausible is if you said '2 thirds of road deaths in NZ detected an inactive metabolite of cannabis in the blood (note: these can be detectable for months after use and doesn't reflect impairment at the time of the accident).

It was actually in northland not whole of NZ. No surprise really.

that kind of freedom is fine in a land that freely uses litigation to sort out issues. Not a land that has things like ACC

Operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated is still a crime, regardless of whether cannabis is legal or not.

Yeah I am a bit on the fence too. Bit of a slippery slope.

The slippery slope argument is a form of logical fallacy.

Take profit away from gangs and give it to the country, win win.

Should be legalized, but not normalized; if legalized should be accompanied by massive drug and alcohol education starting at school(which should be happening anyway). Noting in particular the permanent effects on adolescent brain development (up to age 25) as evidenced in the NZ study.(occasional and regular smokers are much more likely to have mental health issues, and less likely to have a job; IQ reduced)
Need to debunk the common belief that it is a natural harmless panacea for all known disease.

I'm in favour of personal choice, but Marajuana presents a sticky problem - so much evidence suggesting it can lead to debilitating psych issues if used by susceptible teens and young adults (a group with poor impulse control and self discipline). I've no concern about disciplined adults using occasionally (same for cocaine, MDMA and LSD), but I am very worried about kids destroying their lives with it. Sadly there seems to be little to be done about it - it's readily available. So probably decriminalisation is best. Perhaps a drug-users license to make it illegal to supply to those who have problems with them. Deny sale to drug abusers and addictive types.

Your local licensed marijuana store will likely have more stringent age checking policies than your local drug dealer. I appreciate this doesn't mean kids will not get hold of it, but if legalisation is done correctly access could get more difficult than it is now.

Totally agree. The only way you will stop young people using drugs is through education not legislation. Making something illegal just makes it cooler, significantly more dangerous, and more likely to encourage moving to more potent substitutes.
Everything is bad for you, I wouldn’t believe any of those studies. Apparently alcohol is such a killer yet look at all the countries with high life expectancy and they all like a drink. (And look at all the countries with low life expectancy and they all like to ban everything)

Looks like the CIA have taken down "The Helen Clark Foundation" website
Later, its back up again; looks a bit lightweight so far....

Has anyone done a comparison between the approaches of Singapore and Canada and evaluated the amount of drug related crime and harm that remains in those 2 countries after the implementation of their respective policies for dealing with drugs? I personally think that the Singaporean approach looks to be miles ahead of the Canadian one, especially when you look at it from an outcomes perspective!

Read this one the other day

So increase use, increase potency, starting to push lollies and other kid friendly uses.

Look at your source. They're cherry picking to suit their agenda. They're also the same people who promised the end would be nigh if we allowed gay marriage or when we decriminalized prostitution. Still waiting for the sky to fall, somehow I doubt cannabis legalization will be any different.


Sorry dictator, however I cannot help considering the breadth & scope of the said statistics and also thinking logically as a father of teenagers,

Currently – Little Johnny whom wants weed, goes to the drug dealer buys his tinny $25.
Currently – Little Billy whom wants to experiment with weed is too scared or just on legal or moral grounds chooses not to go to the drug dealer & never buys weed, too hard….

Once legal/licensed whatever – The dispensaries sells the same amount of weed for $35 (compliance, license fees, overheads etc). Little Johnny can still get it from the neighborhood drug dealer for $25, maybe $30 now as the drug dealer has a ceiling to discount from.
Once legal/licensed whatever –Little Billy whom wants to experiment with weed uses the same ID he uses to get into clubs with to by weed, or now that its just a tax dodge and not a criminal act he doesn’t consider it too bad to buy from the tinny house, after all he’s supporting the local community and it’s cheaper! Or he gets it off his brother whom is a couple years older.

I cant see how it’s going to stop a black market, we have one now for tobacco.

Then I think if I was a drug dealer or producer, “ok, the market has changed team, let’s just drop the price of heroin, and or fentanyl laced heroin and meth, and flood the market with that, see what we can hook” “by the way, sales are down so get out there and pump the market harder please”.

If legalised or licensed and supply goes up do you really think the price will stay the same? Bringing the price down will push the black market into other substances (although this seems to have happened anyway given the problems the community is having with meth and rampant addiction). Although your example assumes the price would stay the same, but you suggest that they would increase costs by adding drugs. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

If you could get weed from the local dispensary or "cafe" then why go to a tinny house at all? You seem to be assuming that people have a preference to give money to local gangs.

Your ID argument points out that some youth are going to try alcohol and drugs anyway. However Colorado has had interest results with less youth trying weed. In part the ID aspect provides a barrier, but being legalised takes away the allure of trying something illegal.

Essentially you are arguing against reducing youth consumption of weed at very least. It would also reduce the number of low level drug offenses going through the courts, which also disproportionately target Maori (being 41% of those convicted in 2017). Perhaps I should focus more on the inherent racism surrounding those drug convictions.

can we have any discussion in NZ without the word racism being included?

So... The price of legal dope. Tax the hell out of cigarettes but not dope cigarettes. Hmmm

I have not seen any stats that say it has definitively reduced youth consumption, they all skirt around no evidence of increased uptake. But feel free to point me to the relevant definitive stats.

but fenderbender, if we don't acknowledge that racism against single use plastic cups is causing our glaciers to melt and contributing to the extinction of our ever threatened gender fluid NZ unicorns, how will we ever create enough unaffordable houses and increased living costs for our middle class to suffer from?

Grow up, it is the actual definition of racism. You can buy the Pakeha drug in a supermarket along with your Mozzarella and English Breakfast tea but we lock that natives up for having theirs. Alcohol is far and away the more sinister of the two by any metric.

Alcohol is no doubt more sinister. I argue that black market will still be cheaper - no taxes, overheads, wages, levies etc. The same as hunting or fishing for your own meat instead of buying it from a supermarket; the only cost is the time and resources used to fetch it.
Its way more cost effective to grow your own rather than buying super strains from MNCs only in it for profit, not for your wellbeing

You know you don't have to smoke cannabis to enjoy it right?

While I agree that users are best treated as having a medical problem, I disagree that drug use should be without any sanction. – it does a lot of harm – ask any employer, family members of users, or health workers who are left trying to manage the awful consequences. I believe that a significant sanction is required to strongly discourage drug use. It should be easily administered and not criminalise the user. If we do not, we will see lots of young people leaping into drugs, rather like the binge drinking problem that accompanied lowering the alcohol drinking age. For many this will have long term life changing and mental health consequences - do we not have enough of these problems already.

When I consider sanctions, speeding fines come to mind. Surely with drugs including marijuana it is like speeding - we want zero non compliance (even the Greens say this). If there were no sanction for speeding, would education alone be sufficient keep road speeds down to an acceptable level - I very much doubt it. It is not like alcohol where we are trying to moderate use. It would be a simple matter to give police the power to instantly fine people who are found under the influence of drugs or in possession of non dealer quantities of any non permitted drug. As with other instant fines, perpetrators still have recourse to the courts if they disagree. This proposal would automatically facilitate tracking those who are repeat offenders and with a system similar to driving demerit points, enforce their direction to suitable recovery programs. Further the fines may well go a long way to providing the funding for these help programs.

Politically I suspect that the governments present position may put them on shaky ground. The silent majority know that marijuana is really bad, but seem to accept that the current regime is not working and a new approach is required. Judging by recent poll trends, I do not think that they wish to fully legalise it, especially as we are now starting to hear of all the problems that legalisation is bringing to those states in the USA where marijuana has been legalised - I suspect that this is only just the start of what will become a large regret.
If National were to go into the next election with a policy such as the one that I have suggested, I suspect that it may be sufficient for them to win. The current path leaves Labour vulnerable. I do not want to vote for National, but would do so if they committed to not legalising marijuana. I have seen too many of the sad consequences and wasted lives that come with something as seemingly innocuous as marijuana. I suspect that there are a lot of other people like me.

Chris the facts just don't back you up.

Alcohol is the leading risk factor for death between the ages of 15 and 49, marijuana didn't even register (This review was based on 600 studies in 195 countries). One of the benefits of legalisation is that you have certainty of dosage and very low THC products available. Most of my friends in Cali have cut back drastically on alcohol, take low strength THC tinctures and feel healthier, have more energy and have lost weight.

Yes, the low strength products are a major benefit in a government-controlled / regulated market.

Agree with you that alcohol is a much larger risk - as is synthetic cannabis (which has nothing to do with cannabis) and meth.

It would be a much less violent place if regulated cannabis saw reductions in the use of these other three substances.

Lets hope our hospital can handle the expected increase in patients.
Colorado State Hospitals experienced a fivefold increase in cannabis triggered mental health issues such as anxiety,depression and even acute psychosis.
What a nightmare.

Have you actually read the study? Even the authors caveat it by saying the following disclaimer:

'There is a need for further research determining if these findings are truly attributed to cannabis or merely coincident with concurrent increased use and availability'

Even they aren't sure whether there's a true cause-and-effect so steady on with the jumping to premature conclusions and hyperbole.

IMO still enough red flags crying out,Tread Carefully''.

I wonder if they got a five fold decrease in meth admissions?

Probably a five fold decrease.