A Leaf Out Of Canadian Cannabis Reforms
In less than a week, New Zealand may (or may not) become the third country in the world to legalise the recreational use of cannabis.
The referendum to legalise the recreational use of cannabis has polarised New Zealand. On one side are those who believe it will cause much social harm and accentuate the illicit market that already operates in the shadows and on the other are those who see the benefits of legalising the industry.
Cannabis has had a long and colorful history. The ancients quickly discovered that the plant could elevate pleasure and alleviate pain. Many traditional communities have revered the plant for providing both spiritual and physical succor.
Cannabis has long been vilified, in the West, as a mind-altering substance on par with addictive and damaging drugs. In some countries possession and consumption can attract the death penalty. While the use of cannabis as a ‘joint’ is depicted in popular culture, it can be consumed in a variety of ways like inhalation, food, drink or topically applied.
Cannabis is a sunrise industry. While nations and communities are still grappling with societal norms, years of conditioning, proposed legislation and its potential as a legal commercial enterprise it is already a US$15 billion global industry - and New Zealand should get a piece of that pie.
Analysts expect legalizing cannabis will bring in about NZ$490 million in revenue each year. To put things in perspective the extended wage subsidy for the second lockdown in August 2020 cost $510 million and covered 470,00 jobs, In Canada, legal cannabis contributes nearly CAD 10 billion to the economy. Even a fraction of that amount would help benefit New Zealand communities, some of which have seen their businesses affected or even lost during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Indeed, the New Zealand approach to legalizing cannabis is prudent compared to what other nations or states offer their residents. The proposal includes a possession limit of 14 grams while capping levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound that gives people that stoned feeling, to 15 percent. By comparison, there are no THC limits set in Canada or Colorado where people can often possess more than twice that amount.
Fears that legal cannabis will usher in a wave of new users among youth are misplaced. A recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that cannabis usage among teenagers fell by eight percent in legal markets as it became more difficult for youths to obtain the substance even while it eroded the mystique attached to cannabis
It could also help to relieve the pressure on the New Zealand’s justice system. Roughly half of all those in the care of Corrections are Maori, with more than one-third of them in jail for drug offenses. Creating a legal framework that includes funding a cannabis amnesty program would see a reduction in incarceration rates, while establishing a pathway for some of them to start new and productive lives.
From a medical standpoint, legalizing cannabis is a no-brainer and something that New Zealand has already agreed to earlier this year. The cannabis plant – and its 100-odd cannabinoid chemicals – has been clinically proven to aid with seizures, pain, inflammation, anxiety, and depression. More than 40 countries around the world have legalized cannabis for medical reasons, fostering a global industry valued at approximately US$15 billion. Many more are expected to follow suit in the years to come.
Canada, which legalized cannabis two years ago, has experienced a remarkable evolution of the legal regulated market, one that supports more than 5,000 jobs and provides billions of dollars to the country's economy. Unlike the illicit market, consumers know what to expect when they consume their cannabis, and youth consumption rates are beginning to fall. Officials say they haven't seen a massive spike in drug-impaired driving since cannabis was legalized.
Furthermore, Canada's illicit market has been significantly pushed back and is now half the size it was. Provincial police are using the new laws to raid illegal cannabis farms, resulting in nearly a quarter-million plants seized this year alone. Those raids are helping to steer millions of dollars away from organized crime.
In fact, Canada is now awash with legal, cheap cannabis and can now compete with the illicit market on price and quality. The country is providing tangible proof that the legal market is eating away at the black market and will do so for years, likely mirroring how bootleggers faded away once prohibition came to an end.
By establishing its own legal and regulated domestic cannabis industry, New Zealand has the opportunity to become a global leader in this agricultural product. The country can take a prominent position in researching new and innovative ways for cannabis to be used medically and recreationally.
It can also help to foster its own domestic industry, creating thousands of jobs that will be welcome especially during these extraordinary times. It can help replenish government coffers suffering from the economic shock brought on by COVID-19, providing local communities with additional resources and income that can help propel them during this period of deep uncertainty.
Companies like mine, which are leaders in the global cannabis industry are looking to invest in New Zealand. A ‘Yes’ vote will send a positive message to the international investing community that this country can leverage legal cannabis to attract hundreds of millions in investments and create thousands of well-paying new jobs in the government and the private sector.
And it can also further New Zealand's global reputation as a country not afraid to take a stand on something that might seem unusual at first but be on the right side of history once the smoke clears.
There is no better time for New Zealand to regulate and legalize cannabis than now. Vote to legalize cannabis.
Vijay Sappani is co-founder of one of the largest cannabis companies in Canada and co -founder of Huarahi Biosciences, a New Zealand based cannabis company.