Minimum pricing and potency caps should be part of New Zealand cannabis rules

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New Zealand needs to tweak its draft cannabis rules to ensure a “yes” vote for legalizing recreational weed also equates to a nod for public health and safety, suggest two drug policy experts.

Just two months from the referendum on legalizing adult-use cannabis, New Zealanders will be asked to vote yea or nay to the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill (CLCB). The bill spells out use, purchase and cultivation rules for those aged 20 and older; medicinal cannabis, hemp, impaired driving or occupational health and safety issues are not addressed.

But in a recent edition of Addiction, associate professor Chris Wilkins and Marta Rychert of Massey University contend a few gaps need to be filled. They call for adopting a formal minimum price for weed and a lower potential cap for cannabis products.

“Minimum unit pricing has been shown to be effective at reducing alcohol consumption levels and related harms,” Wilkins and Rychert argue in a statement from the Society for the Study of Addiction. Citing the discretionary power to raise weed excise tax if its price falls below a level consistent with act’s purposes, “this discretionary power lacks clear criteria for activation and thus falls short of a clear minimum price provision,” they write. That needs firming up, they say, adding that similar to tobacco, a weight-based may be a more practical alternative for now.

Wilkins and Rychert also point to the need for a lower cap on potency, which the current draft puts at 15 per cent THC. “High-potency cannabis is associated with increasing first-time cannabis treatment admissions, transition to daily use, cannabis dependence and higher risk of psychosis and psychosis relapse.”

Edibles will not initially be included if the proposed act gets the green light, but could be in future. Expressing potency levels in milligrams “per unit” or “per package” demands greater clarity given that unit and package are not defined.

Edibles will not initially be included if the proposed act gets the green light, but could be in future. / Photo: Getty Images Getty Images

Beyond pricing and potency issue, the bill could be further strengthened by offering greater clarity concerning social benefit operators and the role of local government,” notes the study abstract.

Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick, who supports legalizing recreational cannabis, notes in a recent tweet: “Cannabis can cause harm. Our responses to cannabis can increase or decrease that harm. Prohibition maximises harm, and destroys the future and potential of the already marginalised communities it criminalizes.”

Following an appearance on a morning show, in which a comparison of cannabis consumption and speeding was brought up, Swarbrick responded with the following Facebook post: “If people speed, you don’t ban cars. You create law that is effective to reduce harm. 80 per cent of NZers have used cannabis. The law isn’t protecting people, but punishing some.”

FILE: Auckland Mayoral candidate Chloe Swarbrick speaks during a debate on Sport and Recreation at the AUT Akoranga Campus on October 4, 2016 in Auckland, New Zealand. The Auckland Mayoral election closes on Saturday, Oct. 8. / Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

A response to the post states: “Cannabis should be taxed & sold with warning labels to reduce harm. It works for tobacco. 97 per cent of NZ teens manage to abstain from tobacco these days even though it’s available at every corner store, servo and supermarket in the country. Why would it be different for cannabis?”

In the Addiction paper, “We caution against the temptation to employ an interim regulatory regime following a positive referendum result, because a partially regulated market will expose users to health risks and undermine public support,” Wilkins and Rychert write.

Support for the bill has been pegged at 56 per cent, according to a recent poll commissioned by Helius Therapeutics. But the bill has attracted plenty of naysayers as well, including the U.S.-based Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

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