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Voting and Cannabis

One of my students in my class will be 18 when New Zealand has their vote for a new government. He mentioned that he isn't going to vote. It frustrates me when so many people give up their vote because of apathy. People have literally died for them to vote. Some feel like what is the point, it is only one vote. This is a bit like water. Yes, you are a drop but as a whole you can be very powerful. What is even more frustrating is this year we are also combining our usual vote with two referendums. (I will not go into the vote for governments as I don't like to poke that bear.)

The vote that interests me the most is the one to make cannabis legal. Let me give you some background. I come from a family who were very familiar with alcoholism. My grandmother and her second husband could polish off a bottle of vodka in a single sitting. Every night. But myself, I've never drunk alcohol - not even one beer. I don't smoke cigarettes, I don't even drink coffee or coca-cola. I am not a health freak - I love chocolate way too much for that. Having had to rely on drugs to deal with depression I think people who regularly need drugs and alcohol just to be happy or to have fun, screams to me that there is something seriously wrong. Alcohol and drugs should never be treated casually. But despite all that I will be voting yes to make cannabis legal. Let me go into the reasons why.

Reason 1: Medical marijuana. My dad died of cancer last year and he could have used marijuana to handle the pain. He didn't. For several reasons but one of them was because he hated being a burden on anyone and it is a rigmarole for the doctor to get him the medication. If cannabis was legal then medical marijuana would become an over the counter drug like steroid cream. My dad was a probation officer and was always aware of his position in society and didn't even want to be close to a crime. As a teacher I also would be resistant to take marijuana which was medically prescribed. Shucks I was nervous just walking into a liquor store to buy vodka to make perfume. It is weird because there are strong painkillers that if they were sold on the street would be illegal but I wouldn't even hesitate to take them if that was what the doctor needed for me. So there is a stigma around cannabis that can not be denied.

Reason 2: Health. Many people often self medicate to deal with mental illness either with drugs or alcohol. If someone is an alcoholic or addicted to cigarettes there are hotlines and self help books. There are packs to be sent out to help you quit. You can go to a clinic to monitor you as you give up alcohol. While cannabis is illegal people are less likely to reach out for help. And if they do they are worried they are going to be punished instead of helped. Many think their usage is normal. It is only when you see how other people use a substance that you are often confronted by your own habits. If you are more likely to use in front of others they are also more likely to speak their minds if they think you are misusing the substance. The misuse will become a beacon that something is wrong, just like alcoholism is often a sign of other things being wrong. Now people are unlikely to either speak to their friend or report them because they don't want to be considered a Narc.

Reason 3: Racism. Even our police chief has admitted that the police are a little bit racist. Studies have shown that use is about the same amongst white and Maori and yet more Maori are in prisons serving time for cannabis charges. And longer sentences than others. My dad once told me that 80% of crimes are either committed because of or for drugs and alcohol. Yes, there will still be people who will get high and do stupid stuff. But that is true of alcohol and yet alcohol is legal. We would reduce the amount of people in prisons. And we will reduce the amount of Maori who are in prison. Where they become part of the revolving door that is an issue in every country. By avoiding sending young Maori men to prison for smaller issues we are actually going to have a safer more well adjusted society.

Reason 4: Gangs. In New Zealand most cannabis is sold by gangs. I'm not a fan of gangs. They are a symptom of a sick society. Isolated and alienated they gather together to rebel against the system that has treated them terribly. Cannabis is one of their sources of income. If we make it so people can grow their own then they will lose some of their income. If people wanting to go legit they can - if we put things in place to encourage local growers rather than big corporates - bringing in people who would have been the backbone of the gang into the light. Anything that can undermine the gangs' power is something we should take a good look at.

Reason 5: Education. Being a teacher I find it really hard to teach students about the downsides of cannabis when it is illegal. It is the difference of being able to teach safe sex versus abstinence only. At the moment I have to put my foot down and say no to it all and that is the only answer but if it was legal I could teach about the changes it has on teenage brains. That it can have permanent effects and that caution and patience could prevent this damage. We can discuss what excessive use can do to them. We can look at how it affects the brain and everything else that we do for the other substances that are currently legal like alcohol. But while it is illegal there is a resistance to talking about it. Years ago there was a user who went straight who went around to schools to talk to kids about drug use and all that. He spoke about cannabis and his message was don't do it as a kid and don't go overboard. It was a great speech, looking at the links to mental health and cannabis use. He got crucified by the press because how dare he tell kids that it is alright to use drugs. I had been to one of his talks so I know what he actually said was - if you are going to be stupid enough to do something illegal then at least do this... So I know this is an issue when it comes to education. Few of my students know of the side effects. They are educated by the gangs who sell the drug and they aren't going to be well informed or truthful. I'd rather had health professionals teaching our kids about cannabis and not a drug dealer.

Reason 6: Religion. My last reason is going to sound weird. It is actually a more recent reason. You see, I was well convinced with the above reasons but I've since added to my reasons. I've seen many in my church getting all worked up about the referendum. And they are adamant that if we allow it to become legal that it will normalise it and we will be inundated with doped up druggies. It breaks my heart when I hear this rhetoric. First to think that everyone is inherently evil. That if you give someone a chance to do evil they will always choose it. To want to punish people under the current law instead of wanting to forgive and help those who are suffering. Like I stated before I believe that excessive use of drugs and alcohol is a sign someone is suffering in some way. Either to fill something in them that is missing or just to feel something good even if it is fleeting. We shouldn't be running out with torches and pitchforks after these people and being religious we should instead be compassionate and loving. To be judging even before the sin seems rather ridiculous.

Let me see if I can counter the usual arguments people try to give me when I state this view.

"What about drug drivers?"

Yes, that is a valid issue but I truly think that as we turn our focus from punishing people to helping them with mental health issues that fewer will be on the road than there currently is and we will also be able to focus on bigger killers like suicide which kill a lot more people than drug driving each year and drug/alcohol use is a factor to look at in suicide.

"They will just get high and be lazy."

I have some bad news for you. Motivation rarely has anything to do with drug use. And this goes into freedom of choice which is something that is sacrosanct to me. In my religion it is the first gift given to us by our God even before our bodies. If people choose to be lazy or unmotivated that is entirely up to them. I can do that without drugs and binge watch a series in a weekend or read several books one after the other. No drugs needed. But that is my choice and it will be theirs.

"What about the ones who will use it excessively?"

If you think they aren't already using it excessively I have a bridge to sell you.

"What about adverse effects?"

There are some. They have done studies and they say very few will have adverse effects and compared to cigarettes and alcohol it is like nothing. But I ask you why you are worried - if you are so against cannabis use, surely you aren't going to be using it. To be honest most of the adverse effects happen if you use it excessively and if you use it as a teenager. Both have been considered and countered by the proposed restrictions.

This wasn't to convince people but rather to show that things aren't black and white. It isn't about drugs - bad so therefore must be illegal. It is much more complex than that. This is actually about mental health and it is about race and it about choice and it is about judgemental people. Actually I argue that it has almost nothing to do with the actual drug.

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