Where there’s smoke there’s fire: The issue of cannabis reform in Aotearoa

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

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

NZ Drug Foundation. (2019). Taking control of cannabis: A model for responsible regulation. Retrieved from

2 replies on “Where there’s smoke there’s fire: The issue of cannabis reform in Aotearoa”

I heard a Grand Round At ChCh Hosp with speakers re legislation in Canada, and from Australia and NZ. I heard Paula Bennett MP who would vote for de-criminalisation but not for legislation. She had talked to many in Canada since legal there. She said medicinal cannabis is accepted in NZ now, (but, affordable?)
All said that main result is to keep out all who are there for any financial profit, or entry to other drug-taking, or any un-regulated quality control., or taken by any under 20 (or 25).
Canada lacks enough legal suppliers so black market profit sellers still flourish.

Many thanks for your post. As I read your post, I find myself with a whole bunch of internal tensions.

My current position is informed by my experience in having worked for many years in child and adolescent and early intervention services within mental health – often seeing the deleterious effect of cannabis on the brains of children, adolescents and teenagers. Our early intervention services for adolescents and young people became increasingly prescribed to, due to an increase in the number of young people experiencing their first episodes of psychosis due to cannabis use. Sadly for many, this lead to the onset of significant schizoaffective psychiatric disorders. This no doubt has informed my ideas around cannabis.

I wonder if asking the question of legalising is the wrong one; rather if the question to be asked is one of decriminalising?

Legalisation gives a societal statement that cannabis is okay, as well as requires little, fiscally from the government of the day, both things I don’t agree with. Decriminalisation on the other hand acknowledges that it is a substance that due to its adverse effects on populations, requires some form of regulation, fiscal input from government.

In saying this it would be naive to think that simply legalising or regulating equates to positive outcome. Alcohol as a legal drug disproportionately over time – has killed more and costs more than other illegal drugs in NZ.

If we were to explore decriminalising, some challenges would be the Governments ability to adequately resource those sectors that intersect with addictions, and the development of relevant policy that assists those intersecting sectors. As a complex problem, it will require a complex solution.

Thanks for your post
Nga mihi
Jimi McKay

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