Māori university students have their say on cannabis referendum

By Jessica Tyson

Māori students at the University of Auckland have given their view on whether the recreational use of cannabis should become legal.

On election day voters will have the option to vote for or against the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, which would allow people to possess and consume cannabis in limited circumstances.

The bill would allow a person aged 20 or older to buy up to 14 grams of dried cannabis per day, enter licensed premises where cannabis is sold or consumed and grow up to two plants per household.

It would also allow people aged 20 and over to share up to 14 grams of dried cannabis with another person aged 20 or over.

Justice system 

Māori Students Association co-president Mamaeroa Merito says the current justice system isn’t working for Māori.

“It's disproportionately causing harm. We're ending up in the justice system. We're living with lifelong impacts that follow through with convictions,” says Merito of Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaue and Ngāti Awa.

Despite Māori making up 15 percent of the population, Māori aged 17 to 25 make up 37 percent of those convicted of possession and/or use of an illicit drug or drug utensil, according to the New Zealand Drug Foundation.

“This is a bad thing for many reasons. It severely narrows opportunities: It’s harder to get a job, harder to travel, harder to get credit and harder to do many things most of us take for granted.”

Almost half of all people convicted of possession or use of an illicit drug or drug utensil are aged between 17 and 25.

“It also exposes them to a negative environment, and it puts them in prison – a university of crime where drug use is rampant and joining a gang is often necessary for protection. All of this at a time when their brains and identities are forming,” Merito says.

Purpose of the Bill

The bill intends to reduce cannabis-related harm to individuals, whānau and communities by providing access to legal cannabis that meets quality and potency requirements, eliminating the illegal supply of cannabis, raising awareness of the health risks associated with cannabis use and restricting young people's access to cannabis.

It also hopes to limit the public visibility of cannabis and improve access to health and social services, and other kinds of support for whānau.

Merito says many Māori are suffering from addiction and are fearful to engage with support services.

“There’s stigmatisation around utilising services to support addiction and so, right now with it being illegal, it’s so much harder for Māori to go and seek help if they're struggling with addiction but if we were to pass this referendum and de-stigmatise something which is typically illegal, I see that as a means for them to be able to access for meaningful help without being judged.”

Employment

Tamahauiti Potaka of Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Hauiti who is studying a conjoint degree in science and commerce also supports the bill.

“The reason I do support it is I feel it will definitely help with reducing the amount of Māori going into prison. It will also help Māori with business and create jobs, boost the economy and also help rural and small-town communities with people who do struggle with creating jobs.”

Rongoā

Ngāti Whātua descendant Jerry Daniels, who is studying a bachelor of property, says he sees cannabis as medicine.

“I've grown up in South Auckland so I've seen what it can do on a negative aspect. Working as a youth mentor in the north I also see how it can assist youth in staying in school and all sorts of different things. For me, it's an education issue, not so much a criminal issue.”

Sarai Mckay, of Tainui, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Rongomawāhine and Ngāti Porou is studying Māori studies and English. She sees both sides.

“I understand the place and the role of medical cannabis and I can understand the need for regulation use of cannabis as well but I'm unsure of the wider impact of society and communities especially for our Māori whānau. So as of yet, I don't know what I'll be choosing," she says.

“What I've been doing to try and make my decision is talking to a lot of people and trying to engage with more people that feel like that kaupapa is really important to them.”

The general election will take place on September 19.