Richard M Hackett/AP

Last month Canada became the second country to fully legalise recreational use of cannabis, after Uruguay in 2013. The British government has since made its first move on “medical marijuana,” allowing clinical specialists routinely to prescribe cannabis oil and similar products for epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. The New Zealand government is also working on legislation for medicinal use, and has promised a (non-binding) referendum on recreational use by 2020.

New Zealand has a high rate of cannabis use – a decade ago the UN reported it as 14.6 percent of the population aged 16 to 64, putting the country among the global top 20. Familiar arguments for legalisation are advanced here: the failure of the “war on drugs,” that is, the uselessness of treating it as a crime; the need to treat it as a health issue; its relative harm compared to alcohol and tobacco smoking; and now, the great boon that decriminalisation and regulated use would be to the economy and the government’s tax take.

Synthetic cannabis, which is demonstrably harmful, was banned four years ago. But the idea that “natural” cannabis, or marijuana, is relatively harmless is wrong – particularly when young people are involved.

Ministry of Health figures obtained by Family First NZ under the Official Information Act and released today show that 73 children have been hospitalised in the past five years either for poisoning or for mental and behavioural disorders due to the use of cannabis.

This is over four times the number of hospitalisations compared to synthetic cannabis for the same age group. For all ages, more than 2,200 have been hospitalised for cannabis alone.

Family First warns that this rate will only increase if the drug is legalised.

“While the focus has been rightly on the devastation of synthetic cannabis, the fact remains there is no ‘safe drug’. These stats will only worsen if marijuana is legalised in New Zealand and the marijuana industry floods the market with highly potent cannabis concentrates — edibles, dabbing (smoking highly concentrated THC) and vaping — as they have in all other jurisdictions where dope has been allowed,” says Bob McCoskrie, the national director of Family First.

“This should sound the warning bell that marijuana is absolutely a health issue, which is why the law is so important for protecting public health and safety. A soft approach would be a disaster.”

The number of teenagers sent to emergency rooms more than quadrupled after marijuana was legalised in Colorado — mostly for mental health symptoms, researchers reported in 2017. The yearly rate of emergency department visits related to marijuana increased 52%, and hospitalisations increased 148% in Colorado (2012 compared to 2016).

Research, including New Zealand-based research, has shown direct associations between the frequency of marijuana use and higher THC potency with the development of mental health issues (psychosis, depression, anxiety, suicidality, reshaping of brain matter, and addiction). Teenagers who start smoking cannabis daily before the age of 17 are seven times more likely to commit suicide, a study has found.  Colorado toxicology reports show the percentage of adolescent suicide victims testing positive for marijuana has increased. (Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment [CDPHE], 2017).

“At a time when New Zealand’s mental health system is bursting at the seams, why would we legitimise a mind-altering product which will simply add to social harm? It’s patently obvious that legalisation will increase its use, and harm. So-called ‘regulation’ doesn’t change the fact that drugs harm,” says McCoskrie.

In one example, a 9-year-old child in the US state of New Mexico suffered a bad reaction after mistaking her parent’s medical marijuana gummy bears for regular lollies and sharing them with her three friends at school. And pot-laced Oreos sent Oregon students to hospital. 

In the UK, 15,000 teenage hospital admissions have taken place over the past five years as a result of taking cannabis – some of whom were rushed to hospital suffering from serious psychosis.

(Data from the Dunedin cohort study has supported the view that cannabis is a “gateway drug” to other illegal drugs, although the cause of the association was not clear.)

“This is not a ‘war on drugs’,” says McCoskrie, “this is a defence of our brains. Legalising a harmful drug like marijuana – or any other drug for that matter – is not a healthy option.”

This article is adapted from a press release by Family First NZ.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet