Mike O'Donnell: The business undertones of the cannabis debate

Farmers such as David Musgrave deserve certainty.

Farmers such as David Musgrave deserve certainty.

OPINION: Last week I was lucky enough to catch iconic Irish punk rock group The Undertones at the San Francisco Bathhouse in Wellington.

Formed 40 years ago in Derry, Ireland, and rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Ramones, the Buzzcocks and the Sex Pistols, the Undertones were one of the seminal punk rock pioneers.

Famously sardonic and influential British DJ John Peel believed their signature track Teenage Kicks to be so good he played the track twice in a row on his new music show on Radio 1. It is an event that now forms part of rock and roll folklore.

Mike O'Donnell

Mike O'Donnell

Last Tuesday night at the Bathhouse, as the band ripped into that track, it was fascinating to observe a room chocka full of well dressed 40 and 50-year-olds dusting off their pogo dance moves.

READ MORE: What would happen if New Zealand legalised cannabis?

It would have been cool, if it wasn't so comical to see how the ripped shirt, dope-smoking revolutionaries of the 80s had morphed into buttoned-down traditionalists nursing IPAs and chardonnay.

A long time ago a high school teacher explained to me that as society moves left to try new things, the individual moves right to hold on to traditional thinking.

It's a related concept to Winston Churchill's observation that the man who is not a socialist when he is 20 has no heart; but if he is not a conservative by the time he is 40 then he has no brain.

These thoughts came to mind last week as I read about South Canterbury hemp producer David Musgrave advocating for New Zealand to pull finger if it wants to capture the market for recreational and medical cannabis production. A market that is projected to be in excess of $100 billion.

Once considered a bridge too far, things seem to be changing as society gets more comfortable with the idea of decriminalising cannabis.

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Given that two out of five New Zealanders have consumed cannabis at some stage, it's clear that prohibition has not worked, unless the aim was to force dope smokers to hang out with career criminals.

So if prohibition won't work, then perhaps commercialisation will.

Colorado has been the poster child of commercial cannabis reform over the last few years.

On the upside, Colorado has seen crime rates dropping by 2.5 per cent and driving offences decrease. It's also provided an additional 18,000 jobs last year and delivered a huge injection of capital into state level public services including health, welfare and education.

However it hasn't all been roses (or reefer as the case may be).

The fully commercial model there has meant the entrance of new players, driving the price down. A gram of dope today sets you back US$6 (NZ$8) compared to US$9 two years ago.

This has led increased use by teenagers (despite the age restriction on buying) and is expected to impact education results.

While the new traditionalists in New Zealand have kept cannabis reform at arm's length for decades, last year there have been tangible steps towards change.

This has included a range of unlikely bedfellows including Federated Farmers, the late Helen Kelly and The Opportunities Party (TOP) leader Gareth Morgan.

The bureaucrats have also played their part. Informally, police have been following a policy of reactive-only enforcement of cannabis laws when it comes to recreational use. A sensible policy in my opinion.

In April of this year, the Government agreed to have the Food Standards Code modified to allow the sale of low-THC hemp food products in New Zealand; a move that is business-friendly.

Then in June, the Ministry of Health confirmed it was lifting restrictions on cannabidiol. As a result doctors will soon be able to prescribe products containing CBD without ministry approval.

Against this background it's not surprising that cannabis reform has become a 2017 election issue. The TOP Party policy – effectively copying the best parts of the Colorado policy but limiting sale to the cannabis equivalent of community licensing trusts, making the sales taxable and enforcing a minimum price – seems to have staked out a pragmatic middle ground here.

It also aligns with the New Zealand Drug Foundation's depiction of "responsible legal regulation" as the mid point of a continuum from unregulated legal market to unregulated illegal market.

Importantly it would take $150 million away from the criminals who currently control this trade and transfer it to community organisations who could harness it to help prevent harm.

Together the regulated commercial sale and a personal allowance of two plants for personal use would kill the black market, and the nasties that seek to choke supply to sell in P as a replacement.

Properly articulated it could also provide certainty for the likes of David Musgrave and other commercial producers keen to broaden their crop catchment.

My favourite Undertones song is True Confessions which has the lyric: "It's hard to wake up to your makeup, so let's take off that disguise".

New Zealand has been disguising the reality of cannabis use for too long, it's time for change.  A change that will bring social and commercial returns.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an e-commerce manager and professional director. His Twitter handle is @modsta and he'd choose a Cohiba over a doobie any day.

 - Stuff


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