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To criminalise or not? The other side of the cannabis debate

Headmaster Grant Lander —

The following will give you something to ponder before you take up the opportunity to listen to Paul Dillon speak on Tuesday, 9 April at 7pm in the Chapel of Christ the King.

Dear Parents and Guardians

As you will be aware, as part of the confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party, for the current coalition government, it has been agreed that a binding referendum on legalising cannabis for personal use, will be held at the 2020 General Election.

There seem few defenders in the media over the current criminalisation stance, but even fewer tangible solutions to how New Zealand will learn from and avoid the pitfalls of overseas legalisation experience, particularly in America, where:

  • Car crashes have increased by up to 6%, compared with states that have not legalised, accordingly to USA Highway safety and insurance industry data.
  • Cannabis rates for use by all people aged 12 and over are nearly twice as high as in non-legal states. Under age users – those 12 to 17 – are nearly 50% more likely to have consumed cannabis in the previous month, according to the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration.
  • In Colorado, which legalised the drug, (i.e. initially for medicinal use, in 2010), youth cannabis related emergency hospital admissions quadrupled in the decade to 2015.
  • In Canada, which legalised in October 2018, the province of Ontario was already experiencing an increase in cannabis related emergency cases rose from 449 in 2013 to 1370 last year, (while in Alberta, the rise was from 413 to 832).

These statistics are a sign that legal, regulated supply has emboldened, rather than displaced, illegal unregulated supply.

The active ingredient in marijuana, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is typically far more potent than the weed previous generations smoked. The Canadian Public Health Association stated that the dope on Canada’s illicit market, can have 5-40% THC. Although the recreational cannabis market is newly regulated and dose restricted, the underground market continues, with high strength oil increasingly being added.

There is probably little international dissention as to the impact of marijuana on the vulnerable teenage brain. Currently, with the drug being illegal, it is estimated that by the age of 21, 80% of young people would have used it on at least one occasion and that probably 10% have developed a pattern of heavy dependence. There is increasing evidence that regular or heavy use of cannabis can have adverse consequences on mental health, academic performance and motivation at school.

In 2018, a world-renowned longitudinal study, undertaken by University of Otago researchers, of 1000 Cantabrians born in Christchurch in 1977, showed that 80% had used cannabis at least once in their lifetime; infrequent use was not associated with long term negative outcome; but teenagers who used it weekly were twice as likely as others to experience symptoms of psychosis as infrequent/non-users. While those that used the drug weekly up to 25 years of age, were ten times more likely to use other illegal drugs. Less than 20% of those who used cannabis before the age of 15 achieved tertiary qualifications compared to nearly 30% who did not use cannabis before age 18.

Associate Professor Bodes, from the University of Otago, states that “the public should be aware of scientific evidence around cannabis before proposing a referendum on legalising cannabis. Canterbury data, along with data from other New Zealand and international studies, suggests the harm of cannabis is most pronounced for those who being at a young age or use cannabis regularly during adolescence … any changes need to protect the most vulnerable and it is not just a change to the open slather free market model that alcohol currently enjoys … the law change needs to be carefully studied”.

From personal experience, since becoming a Deputy Principal in 1991, I have found myself each year progressively working pastorally with a core group of largely young men and their families, who have been regular users of marijuana. A few because of their addiction, have broken the law and have spent time in prison. Many have had real emotional issues; depression and at times shown psychotic symptoms and most have certainly experienced major motivational and organisational issues around their academic studies. A large number of regular teenage cannabis users, from my experience, develop short-term memory issues, which affect time management, retention of information. Yes, we are talking about 5 to 10% of the adolescent population, but they probably represent 15-20% of our young men. Is it acceptable that this group are at a significantly increased risk of experiencing mental health and substance abuse problems, as well as potential disengagement and at times risky antisocial behaviour?

We seem hell-bent on legalising something which many of us have only sampled some 20 years previously (i.e. when it was grown out in the open and not produced in its high strength, hydroponic form as the majority of today’s marijuana production). On the one hand, we don’t want people to be convicted for cannabis use, but on the other we don’t seem to be prepared to put adequate measures in to protect or restrict use by the under-developed frontal cortex of an under 25-year-old male. What have we learnt from what has happened overseas in what we plan to put into place in New Zealand?

The following is an anonymous personal Facebook post in response to an article on the cannabis issue that recently appeared on Stuff and which provides a thought-provoking perspective on the debate:

“I was a heavy weed smoker in my teens but gave up when it made me depressed and paranoid. My brother wasn’t so lucky. He committed suicide in his early 20s, after smoking it for over a decade. This is not a harmless drug. Thank you to the academics for speaking up and reminding us to consider the very real long-term damaging effects of cannabis (especially on the young) as part of this debate. Also, why just focus on cannabis in the referendum? Let’s include all recreational drugs, so we can make an honest look at the issue and make the best decisions for the next generation. I am pro decriminalisation (not legalisation) of weed and other recreational drugs if it will help reduce harm, increase the focus on prevention and treatment, remove the stigma of addiction, and encourage people to seek help without fear of criminal conviction. However, I am not yet convinced it will so will likely vote ‘no’ in the referendum.”

It is crucial that as parents, we are well informed about the key issues relating to the legalisation of cannabis in our country. It is also important that we have a good understanding of the challenges young people face today. To this end, we have secured Mr Paul Dillon, the Director and founder of Drug Alcohol Research Training Australia (DARTA) to present to your family in the Chapel of Christ the King on Tuesday, 9 April 2019 at 7.00pm. Given the recent frequent appearance at Hamilton teenage parties of MDMC (which is similar in structure to Ecstasy), I would strongly recommend that all parents put aside a couple of hours of their time to attend Paul Dillon’s presentation. Mr Dillon will be doing separate age-specific presentations to our Year 11, 12 and 13 students respectively over the course of the day on 9 April. Through School TV, we will provide all of the St Paul’s community with an extra support resource, soon after the Paul Dillon presentation.

Tickets to Paul Dillon's presentation, Teenagers, alcohol and other drugs, can be purchased here