Research to help inform Māori decisions ahead of cannabis referendum

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Research to help inform Māori decisions ahead of cannabis referendum

Media release from the University of Otago
Reremoana Theodore
Reremoana Theodore

Rangatahi Māori are more likely to use cannabis or be dependent on it and more likely to be negatively affected by cannabis laws, compared to their non-Māori peers.

That is the message from a recently-published review article discussing the cannabis referendum, cannabis use and cannabis issues for rangatahi Māori (Māori youth), authored by Dr Reremoana Theodore, Co-Director of National Centre for Lifecourse Research, University of Otago.

“The article was written because there have been few reports released, in the lead up to the cannabis referendum in September, that have solely focused on issues for Māori,” says Dr Theodore.

“Many Māori parents and whānau are worried about the impact that the referendum will have on rangatahi. There is a need to provide evidence-based information to help inform decisions ahead of the referendum to either vote “yes” or “no” to legalising the personal use of cannabis.”

The wider determinants of health including social ( for example racism) and economic (for example poverty) and inequities in the access to, and quality of, health services put rangatahi Māori at higher risk of cannabis use and dependence compared to their non-Māori friends.

Dr Theodore says that compared to older Māori, “understanding cannabis issues for rangatahi Māori is important because of the developing adolescent brain. Studies to date have found that early and regular cannabis use in adolescence has been associated with poorer cognitive and mental health outcomes (e.g. psychotic symptoms), particularly for those individuals with a family history.”

Dr Hinemoa Elder, a leading Māori health expert and Māori Strategy Leader for Brain Research New Zealand says:

“While early and regular cannabis use in adolescence is not without its harms, these harms occur whether or not cannabis is legal. Cannabis convictions also have long-term impacts on young people’s lives like gaining employment and the lives of their whānau, for example family separations because of incarceration.”

Dr Elder is a member of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor’s Expert Panel on Cannabis and the panel will be releasing its cannabis report next month.

The recently published review article Cannabis, the cannabis referendum and Māori youth: a review from a lifecourse perspective, includes findings from New Zealand longitudinal studies that have shown that even when higher rates of cannabis use and other factors such as having a previous police record are taken into account, young Māori have been more likely to be convicted for cannabis offences than non-Māori; highlighting that there has been a racial bias in the way that the NZ police have enforced cannabis laws.

“These same studies found that 95% of people who were arrested or convicted of cannabis use either continued using cannabis at a similar or increased rate suggesting that cannabis laws do not stop people from using,” Dr Theodore says.

Recommendations in the review article include the need to treat regular cannabis use and dependence as a health issue and not a criminal issue. Criminalising drug use may stop rangatahi Māori from becoming educated about the effects of cannabis or stop them from seeking help if they are having issues with their cannabis use.

Dr Theodore highlights that if cannabis is legalised then the proposed age restrictions are important “given what we know about cannabis and its effects, and the fact that Māori are a proportionately young and growing population”. The draft Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill released by the Government sets the minimum age of cannabis purchase and use at 20 years. A person aged 19 years or younger, found in possession of cannabis, will receive a health-based response (for example an education session) or will have to pay a small fine, but will not be convicted.

Co-author and Chair of the NZ Drug Foundation, Tuari Potiki says:

“There is a need for equal partnership with Māori to support effective policy, regulation and the design, delivery, funding and management of drug and health services for rangatahi and whānau Māori. This requires a commitment to equity, Te Tiriti o Waitangi and investment in kaupapa Māori services.”

The review article also recommends the ongoing monitoring of youth cannabis use to help ensure that rates of use or dependence do not increase if cannabis use is legalised.

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