A guest post by Suzette Jackson, a Master of Social Work student at the University of Auckland.
The issue of cannabis reform in Aotearoa is incredibly important for us as social workers. It is an issue I have a personal stake in due to my life experience, current studies and place of work. I am an addict and alcoholic in recovery, a Master of Social Work student, a drug and alcohol counsellor, a university tutor, a mother and a grandmother. While I am not an expert on this issue, I am committed to learning about the options we will be asked to vote on in next year’s referendum. Here is my take.
I want to see the cannabis debate as a gateway to dialogue and education. It is naïve to believe maintaining the status quo will reduce drug use. That approach is clearly not working. The criminal justice approach to cannabis use has only served to clog up our courts and prisons.
My view is that we, as social workers, need to have an opinion and we need to make it known. We are at the coal face, supporting people who have drug and alcohol problems. We are also caregivers and are often the last professionals to have close contact with terminally ill people before they die. Social workers operate at all levels of society; we work in hospitals, treatment centres, schools, and prisons. We advocate for people and are sometimes involved in the development of social policy. We communicate with people of all ages and all ethnicities. We are champions, advocates, listeners, teachers and healers.
Individually, and organizationally we need to be engaged in this debate. We are often the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. It is time we were part of creating structural change.
The Christchurch Health and Development study is a great resource of knowledge in the area of cannabis use and associated harm. This longitudinal study started following the development of over 1200 babies born in Christchurch in 1977. The study has collected data on those individuals for over 40 years and has provided a wealth of knowledge about the issue of cannabis use in New Zealand. Through this study researchers have found that by the age of 21 approximately 80% of young people have tried cannabis at least once.
Recently, two of the professors involved with the study published an article in the New Zealand Medical Journal about cannabis regulation and what they view as the way forward. They cautiously back the call to legalise cannabis use for recreational purposes. However, they also highlight that legislation can have adverse effects, as shown in other countries, and recommend caution. In fact, their view is to take the middle ground between the two extremes of the debate. They say it would be better to legalise cannabis under strict conditions and then review the legislation carefully every step of the way.
The Drug Foundation proposes a model for responsible regulation that would tighten up access, not open the floodgates. I agree with the sentiment of Ross Bell, the Drug Foundation Executive Director, when he says that if his children decided to use cannabis he would prefer they bought it through a regulated system rather than come into contact with organised crime peddling other drugs such as methamphetamine.
Also, I would rather my daughter and grandson were educated about safe drug use and felt free to talk to me about their use and know that they could come to me if they ever felt their use was getting out of control.
The Drug Foundation, which has been working in NZ for 30 years, recently released a report “Taking Control of Cannabis: A Model for Responsible Regulation”. The report outlines how the government could legislate the use of cannabis in order to minimise harm and reduce usage among adolescents. The research that has gone into this publication has produced an utterly compelling and sensible way forward for cannabis reform. It says regulation would shift the cannabis market out of criminal hands and bring it into state control.
The report outlines how the control of cannabis will protect young people in a way that is not currently happening. It provides a model that would restrict sales to licensed retailers and limit purchasing to those over the age of 20.
The government appears to be listening to the desperate need for more money and services in order to support the many New Zealanders in need of mental health and addiction support. Legalising cannabis could benefit the New Zealand public and the clients and families we are supporting. The idea that legislation, regulation, education and health could all work together to change the face of drug use in Aotearoa is too important to ignore.
I am often asked why I talk publicly about my addiction and alcoholism, like it is something I should be embarrassed about, and that those knowing about it somehow have power over me and may see me in a different light.
I am proud of where I stand today but that was not always the case. The shame and guilt of drug use kept me silent for many years. I believe that opening up the dialogue about cannabis use will help to educate our young and create a more open and honest conversation about drug and alcohol use. Rather than deny drug and alcohol use we can shine a spotlight on it and begin much needed conversations.
My number one take home message is; get informed and become involved.
Image Credit: Beverley Yuen Thompson
Boden, J., & Fergusson, D. (2019). Cannabis law and cannabis-related harm. The New Zealand Medical Journal, 132I(1488), 7-10. Retrieved from https://www.nzma.org.nz/journal/read-the-journal/all-issues/2010-2019/2019/vol-132-no-1488-18-january-2019/7780
Fergusson, D., & Boden J. (2011). Cannabis use in adolescence. Improving the Transition: Reducing Social and Psychological Morbidity During Adolescence. Auckland, New Zealand: Office of the Prime Minister’s Science Advisory Committee, 235-256. Retrieved from https://www.otago.ac.nz/christchurch/otago018744.pdf
NZ Drug Foundation. (2019). Taking control of cannabis: A model for responsible regulation. Retrieved from https://www.drugfoundation.org.nz/assets/uploads/2019-uploads/Taking-control-of-Cannabis.pdf