Is the legalisation of cannabis racist?

13 July 2020
Mark Maney

Is the legalisation of cannabis racist?

by | Jul 13, 2020

There is a common accusation from those who support the legalisation of cannabis that the illegality of cannabis causes disproportionate harm to ethnic minorities. Joseph Boden, a professor in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago, Christchurch and who sits on the government’s Expert Panel on Cannabis asserts that “Prohibition is racist, it operates in a racist manner, and you see this everywhere and that’s one of the main reasons, to me, to get rid of it. It’s actually a tool for white people to oppress minorities. The trouble with police discretion”, he argues, “is that it then goes down to the individual officer who isn’t necessarily accountable for their motivations and may not even understand their own motivations…Māori are two and a half times more likely to be convicted for cannabis offences than non-Māori, and that’s after correcting for differences in rates of use. If you’re brown, your chances of getting leniency from police is lower.”1

In response to that, I argue that the legalisation of cannabis would in reality not benefit racial minorities, but instead cause them significant harm. How?

Ask yourself the question, if cannabis is legalised and sold, where will it be sold? Will cannabis shops pop up in the rich privileged neighbourhoods, or will they more likely be found in the most vulnerable ones?

Many people think they might vote “yes” to the legalisation of cannabis in the upcoming referendum, primarily because they do not want people to go to jail or get a criminal record for cannabis usage (which is of course why we should genuinely investigate decriminalising the use of cannabis, not legalising cannabis so that it can be openly manufactured, promoted and merchandised).

But if you ask those same people, “So, if we openly sell cannabis in your own neighbourhood, and at a shop just down the road, is that okay? If we locate cannabis shops where your kid passes by on the way to school, is that okay with you?” Asked that question, most people would instinctively feel “No, no, no. Let’s put cannabis shops somewhere else, not anywhere near me or my family”.

Local councils would start getting calls from constituents saying, “You know, I thought legalising cannabis was good, but they’re not going to open a store near here, are they? What can we do to stop it?” And eventually, the majority (not all) of cannabis shops would end up in those minority communities which have the least resources to fight the negative consequences of cannabis usage.

Now before you think this is just a concern of the author of this article, it is obvious that the government also knows this is true. In Sections 16 & 88 of the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill (Exposure Draft for Referendum Version) the government lists the criteria for the issue of a cannabis distribution licence. Here is the criteria from section 88 (expanded criteria originally set in section 16):

d) Take into account the following factors relating to the proposed location or locations of the premises:

i.   the characteristics of the locality or part of the locality

ii.  the locations of kindergartens, early childhood centres, schools, tertiary institutions, places of worship, parks, sports facilities, swimming pools, playgrounds, and other community facilities

iii. the cumulative effect of the presence or absence of other licensed premises in the same locality:

iv. whether the amenity and good order of the locality would be likely to be reduced, to more than a minor extent, by the effects of the issue of the licence:

v.  whether the amenity and good order of the locality are already so badly affected by the effects of the issue of existing licences that they would be unlikely to be reduced further (or would be likely to be reduced further to only a minor extent) by the effects of the issue of the licence but it is nevertheless desirable not to issue any further licences in the locality:

A key phrase here is in point iv, which states, “whether the amenity and good order of the locality would be likely to be reduced.” With that in mind, which communities do you think are going to get the larger share of cannabis shops? Which communities’ property values are not going to be lowered much by a nearby cannabis shop? Unfortunately, it will often be communities with racial minorities who do not have the resources to fight the establishment of such a shop. And with the presence of a shop, there will be an increase in cannabis usage in the community. With that, there will be yet one more factor separating those who live in privileged areas from those who do not.

In conclusion, take a sober look at the final point (v): “whether the amenity and good order of the locality are already so badly affected by the issue of existing licences that they would be unlikely to reduced further”. To me, that is a clear acknowledgement of the damage that will be done to some communities by the legalisation of cannabis. I ask again, what communities are likely to be so badly affected by the existence of licenced cannabis locations that they are “unlikely to be reduced further”? It can only be those communities that are already disempowered in society – those racial minorities whose voices are too easily ignored and whose pain and problems are being offered the cold comfort of legalised cannabis.

For these reasons, and the reasons stated in my previous article, particularly that the government should first do a thorough, genuine, investigation into decriminalisation, we should vote “no” to the legalisation of cannabis in the upcoming referendum.

1 Alice Webb-Liddall, “A Compelling NZ Academic Argument to End Cannabis Prohibition – from 1975,” The Spinoff, January 21, 2020, https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/21-01-2020/this-1975-study-tells-us-about-what-we-always-knew-about-cannabis/

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