An independent think tank funded by and named for a former prime minister of New Zealand released a report on Tuesday calling on the country’s voters to support a planned 2020 referendum to legalize and regulate marijuana.

The 28-page publication from the Helen Clark Foundation outlines how prohibition has failed to eliminate the use or supply of cannabis and argues that the status quo has wasted law enforcement resources while putting non-violent offenders, including many young people, in jail.

The report comes four months after the government’s three-party minority coalition released details about the legalization referendum, which came about as a compromise with the Green Party and is slated to go before voters in November of next year. The measure, which will be binding and require the legislature to act if approved at the ballot box, will aim to prevent underage consumption, disrupt the illicit market and reduce the prison population.

Authors of the new report said they weren’t endorsing marijuana consumption and that legalization should be coupled with public education campaigns to inform people about the risks and benefits of using cannabis. They added that measures should be taken to deter or prevent the emergence of large, for-profit marijuana businesses from dominating the market.

“The basic principle is that there are so many things in a society that have a potential for harm. Tobacco—we regulate and tax it but don’t prohibit it. Same with alcohol,” Clark, who is also a member of the Global Commission On Drug Policy alongside other former heads of state, told The New Zealand Herald.

“Let’s talk upfront about this, rather than pretending that we can ban it,” she said. “You’re not promoting this. You’re saying this is a reality in our society.”

The report states that New Zealand should study different regulatory models, including Colorado’s marijuana program and those of Canada and Uruguay. But maintaining prohibition, it says, impedes research into the plant, enables the illicit market to thrive and contributes to discrimination in the criminal justice system.

“Our analysis argues that the disproportionately adverse effects of current policies justify putting in place legislation and effective regulation,” report co-author Kathy Errington said. “Cannabis should be treated as a health and social issue, not a criminal one. The status quo is exacerbating its harm.”

While some have argued that noncommercial decriminalization of possession represents a superior alternative to broad legalization, the report argues that such a policy would be insufficient because it “doesn’t address the illicit markets and criminal networks of drug selling.”

“Many of the benefits of an increasingly regulated market can only come about if the whole supply chain is above board,” the report states. “That also applies for collection of government revenue—the government can only collect tax on cannabis sales if they are legal.”

Report authors argued that prohibition fails to deter cannabis consumption, encourages the use of “riskier, higher potency products,” doesn’t provide “just and proportionate consequences” in terms of criminal penalties, wastes government resources and decreases the effectiveness of fact-based public health education campaigns.

A legal cannabis model would ameliorate these problems, they said. The report also makes recommendations for what a regulated marijuana market should look like. That includes ensuring that there’s sufficient access to cannabis in order to offset the illicit market, imposing robust regulations such as restrictions on advertising, expunging prior marijuana convictions and investing in public education campaigns.

“We believe that the evidence backs a ‘Yes’ vote in 2020 for legalising and regulating the cannabis market in New Zealand,” the foundation concluded. “Doing so will advance public health objectives and support greater social equity. Prohibition-based policy approaches have not eradicated and cannot eradicate cannabis consumption and supply in New Zealand.”

“New Zealand needs to treat cannabis use as a public health and social issue rather than a criminal one,” the report states.

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Photo courtesy of Tākuta.

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