Dr Fiona Hutton, Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Victoria University of Wellington discusses the role of academics in public debates and the importance of an informed approach to decision making, including the upcoming referendum on legalising cannabis.

I have been pondering this question recently as I have been involved in quite a bit of public commentary on the topic of drug law reform (on one my specialist areas of teaching and research). I think the first thing to say is that academics should be involved in public debates and commentary because it is part of our job to contribute to important issues that could have far reaching consequences for the societies and communities that we live in.  

Academics can also be challenging in the public arena in ways that other people often cannot, fulfilling a really important role as ‘conscience and critic’ of society. Often academics raise issues that governments (and others) may not want to hear: about people’s rights; about law and other reform; and in my own discipline of criminology about ‘justice’.

I’d also like to think that academics who choose to publicly comment on issues don’t simply vent or rant – we comment from an informed perspective, often giving a voice to concerns that others are unable to raise, and providing clear, evidence-based information.  

Misinformation and populist politics are also some of the reasons why it is crucial that academics contribute to public debates - we are immersed in the research and in the evidence about particular issues, and it is an important part of an academic’s job to ‘myth bust’ and to provide balanced information in public debates. It is important to do this because these issues really matter and affect the lives of New Zealanders.

Take drug law reform and the upcoming 2020 referendum on legalising cannabis for example - how many of us know what it is really about? The difference between decriminalisation and legalisation? The reasons why drug law reform may be beneficial?

How many New Zealanders know that since the "war on drugs" started in the 1970s drug use has steadily risen? How many of us are aware that the majority of drug-using episodes cause no harm to users or communities (just like the majority of alcohol-using episodes), and how many New Zealanders know that "getting tough" and increasing penalties has no impact on supply and increases harms to users?

Legalisation of cannabis in New Zealand would see people able to buy cannabis legally from a regulated, licensed outlet. It would be legal to possess and use. This model (which would also include no advertising of cannabis products, and an age limit of 20 for purchase) would also avoid the stigma and disadvantage of a criminal conviction.

A common myth about legalisation is that it would liberalise the market for cannabis and make it more available. However, under the current situation with an underground illegal market for cannabis it is already liberalised, drug dealers don’t ask for ID.

Approximately a quarter of the New Zealand population have ‘ever tried’ an illegal drug. Globally, it is estimated one in 20 adults, or a quarter of a billion people between the ages of 15 and 64, used at least one drug in 2014. That's roughly the equivalent of the combined populations of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. It is a myth that illegal drugs are not available in our society.

The involvement of academics in public debate on key issues and the dissemination of knowledge more broadly is vital for an informed public and for a healthy democracy. As critic and conscience of society, academics are positioned as a key component in the public arena, where ideas are expressed and challenged.

As academics, our job is to contribute our voice and perspective on key issues. This has always been our role, and as we find ourselves increasingly battling misinformation and populist politics, it is of crucial importance that we continue to provide a balanced view on the key issues facing society today.

For further information on drug law reform see.