A Catholic secondary school principal is among community leaders who have signed up to a new alliance of people who will work to oppose any attempt to legalise cannabis in New Zealand.
Patrick Walsh, principal of John Paul College in Rotorua, is among the those in Smart Approaches to Marijuana NZ (SAM-NZ), the formation of which was announced this month.
Spokesman Aaron Ironside described the coalition as being made up of “a wide-ranging group of organisations and experts from all areas of society to come together to argue against legalising the recreational use of cannabis, based on reputable science and sound principles of public health and safety”.
Among their members are ex-addicts, educators, ex-police, addiction counsellors, health professionals and community workers. The formation of the coalition was announced in a statement from Family First.
The coalition is urging people to vote “No” in the referendum at the general election later this year, which will ask people if they support the “Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill”.
According to the Ministry of Justice, the proposed bill sets out a way for the Government to control and regulate cannabis. This regulatory model covers how people can produce, supply, or consume cannabis.
According to official publicity on the referendum, the bill’s main purpose is to reduce cannabis-related harm to individuals, families/whānau and communities. It would allow people aged over 20 to possess and consume cannabis in limited circumstances.
The referendum is a commitment in the Labour-Green confidence and supply agreement. More information on the bill’s provisions can be found at www.referendums.govt.nz
Mr Walsh told NZ Catholic he has “no confidence that the regulation proposed in the ‘bill’ will work”.
“Regulation has been a dismal failure with alcohol where binge drinking and drunk driving by under 18-year-olds remain significant problems,” he said.
“No one disputes that marijuana is a harmful, addictive drug that has adverse effects on the physical and mental well-being of users. These are accentuated on the developing teenage brain.
“Legalising cannabis is, in effect ‘legitimising it’, so we will see, inevitably an increase in its use by teenagers. My experience working in high schools for the last 35 years tells me we will see more students using it if it is legalised. This, in turn, will lead to more of the following in teenagers:- driving while drugged, depression, suicidal ideation, poor academic results, dropping out of school, and anti-social behaviour, including crime and violence.”
Mr Walsh said SAM-NZ does not wish to criminalise teenagers who use cannabis. “Certainly the first options should be an educative and therapeutic approach,” he said.
“If this fails, however, there must be a final deterrent by having it remain on the statute book as a crime, albeit limited to a fine for teenagers and a family group conference.”
In their statement before the 2017 general election, the New Zealand Catholic bishops stated that “moves to legalise ‘soft’ drugs and other substances – which wreak havoc in particular sectors of our society – are a deeply cynical and cheap way of side-lining a complex social ill that needs to be addressed creatively and resolutely”.
Mr Walsh said the bishops “are correct in their analysis of this issue. Simply legalising a problem won’t make the underlying causes of it go away. Endemic drug dependency is symptomatic of communities who are struggling with poverty, isolation, a sense of hopelessness, rejection and fear. These are the more complex issues that the Catholic bishops want us to address. In short, if some feel the “Kingdom of God” here on earth is for a select few and that they will never be welcomed to join it, drug dependency will remain a scourge on society.”
The principal added that he has spoken out on this issue before, since he has seen “first-hand the devastating effect of drug use on teenagers, their whanau and other victims. These other victims include those injured in road accidents, those assaulted or stolen from and employers losing productivity, when there is a no show”.
But he forecast that the referendum will be a close vote.
“It is important that people note that this referendum is not about medical use of cannabis, which we support since it is controlled and prescribed by medical doctors for a specific purpose. We are being asked in this referendum to vote for recreational use so people can get a legal high. It is always a good idea to be well informed on referendums of such significance. I would recommend people listen, in particular, to medical experts, educators and those at the forefront dealing with substance abuse.”
According to the referendums.got.nz website, if more than 50 of people vote “Yes” in the referendum, recreational cannabis wouldn’t become legal straight away. After the election, the incoming Government can introduce a bill to Parliament that would legalise and control cannabis. This process would include the opportunity for the public to share their thoughts and ideas on how the law might work.
If more than 50 per cent of people vote “No” in the referendum, recreational cannabis would remain illegal, as is the current law. Medicinal cannabis and hemp will not be affected by the outcome of the referendum.