Science and the NZ cannabis and euthanasia referendums
OPINION: Two big questions, two “yes” votes from me.
We are five weeks away from the general election, still a long time in a world with Covid-19. A new community outbreak of the virus could change our fortunes overnight.
Aside from choosing who we think should run the country, we have some serious science-related issues to consider with a non-binding referendum on whether to legalise cannabis and a binding referendum on voluntary euthanasia awaiting our votes on September 19.
As the late novelist David Foster Wallace put it, occupying “the day-to-day trenches of adult life” is hard and finding time and the head space for such weighty issues is also difficult. Here’s what I’ve been pondering when it comes to deciding how to vote on cannabis and euthanasia.
Will it do more harm than good overall? There is no clear-cut answer based on overseas experience. Will legalising cannabis lead to a spike in use and a host of new public health problems as a result?
Experts suggest that removing the criminal enterprise behind the cannabis trade and the stigma associated with cannabis-related convictions will significantly benefit society and Māori in particular.
The prime minister’s chief science advisor, Professor Juliet Gerrard, has assembled a good, balanced summary of the evidence with her expert panel on cannabis.
One paper referenced by the panel sums up the issue for me. It’s American author, Beau Kilmer, says the outcome on health, safety and social equity will come down to how we deal with the “14 Ps”. They span everything from the production and profit motive underpinning a legitimate cannabis industry, to the price, purity and potency of cannabis products on offer and the state’s power to police it and enact measures to prevent harm.
To me, the risk-reward equation favours a “yes” vote as long as the new Cannabis Regulatory Authority is effective in properly overseeing the industry and that there’s a genuine opportunity to review progress at the five-year mark and make changes if needed.
Will it be abused? Euthanasia is an easier call for me to make, due to the relatively restrictive provisions of the End of Life Choice Act 2019, which sees it only apply to an adult with a terminal illness and less than six months to live and only if they have the approval of two doctors.
Other countries, such as Belgium and Switzerland (with its Dignitas “assisted dying centres”), have much more liberal schemes in place. Again, evidence from overseas is mixed on what the overall impact on society would be.
We know that people with a terminal illness can safely be given a swift and painless death. But crucial is maintaining a person’s right to make that choice without undue pressure from family, friends or health professionals.
There is scope for abuse of the system with tragic consequences. Effective oversight from regulatory bodies is crucial. But on balance, it's another “yes” for me.