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Legalising cannabis may reduce 'biased enforcement' of Māori - chief science advisor

Legalising cannabis would significantly improve police bias against Māori, a report by the prime minister's chief science adviser suggests.

Juliet Gerrard completed the report ahead of the cannabis referendum, showing the differences in possible outcomes based on the vote.

It said Māori were three times more likely to be arrested and convicted of a cannabis-related crime than non-Māori. Māori were almost twice as likely as non-Māori to go to court over a first offence and nearly seven times more likely to be charged.

"Māori have borne the brunt of biased enforcement and the negative health effects of cannabis being illegal.

"Though police have discretion to take a health-oriented approach rather than prosecuting those using cannabis, inherent biases in police discretion implied by the disproportionate arrests and convictions for cannabis possession for Māori suggest that this law change may not address social inequities as much as legalising cannabis could.

"Unconscious bias by police towards Māori has been acknowledged by former police commissioner Mike Bush and current Police Commissioner Andrew Coster," the report says.

It is estimated that legalising cannabis would reduce Māori cannabis convictions by almost 1300 a year, put Māori on a more equal footing with other people and they could expect better outcomes for education, travel, and employment.

"Legalising cannabis could have important positive implications for social equity outcomes, particularly for Māori," the report says.

The report said Māori would however be more likely to suffer harm from cannabis use, because of a lack of alcohol and other drug treatment services in their communities.

It said that if cannabis was legalised, more addiction treatment services would be paid for by taxes on cannabis sales.

At this year's general election on 19 September, the public will be asked a simple yes/no referendum question: "Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?" and if it passes, Parliament will put through legislation to make it lawful.

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