Hard News by Russell Brown


Cannabis reform is not a mission to Mars

If the Drug Foundation's investment in polling on the matter of cannabis law reform was intended to start a conversation, then it has certainly achieved its aim. If not all the talk has been of high quality, well, that's not unexpected.

Three daily newspapers have run broadly sympathetic editorials since the poll results were published. The Press suggested that we might not find reform – or, at least decriminalisation – quite as big a deal as we thought:

The police have other demands on their time. There is clearly a groundswell for change. We need to recognise that and push ahead with the debate, but make sure we get it right.

The Dominion Post declared that the time for a serious debate has arrived:

Nevertheless, the current system is clearly failing too. It still sees thousands of people arrested annually – and unevenly (evidence suggests that Maori, in particular, are heavily targeted). It still funnels millions of dollars to gangs. It still penalises a practice that nearly half of New Zealanders admit to trying. 

There are, then, real reasons to consider reform. That doesn't need to mean "a tinny house on every corner", as Key put it.

It might mean modest fines for possession of small quantities of cannabis. It might mean allowing tightly regulated sale, with substantial taxes, strict age limits and location restrictions, and quality and strength controls. (Among the losers from the latter approach would certainly be New Zealand's gangs).

There is no case for carte blanche legalisation when the drug has real harms – and when so much work goes into reducing harms caused by legal drugs.

But that doesn't mean full prohibition works either. It doesn't. There's room for something in between, with plenty of time to debate the details. Now is a good time to have that debate.

While the Herald fretted over how difficult it might all be:

It is easy to agree, as 64 per cent of those polled did, that possession for personal use should not be a crime. It is almost as easy to agree with the 52 per cent who would decriminalise its cultivation for personal use. But if the purpose is to save police time, it would probably do the reverse. How would police know a person found in possession of cannabis, or cultivating it, had no more than an amount permitted for personal use? And if cannabis was merely decriminalised, remaining illegal, what are police supposed to do about it? Their job is easier when crime is clearly defined.

These are questions with answers. How would police know what was an amount permitted for personal use? Because that amount would be stated in law. Police and courts have for decades applied a benchmark of 28 grams for the presumption of supply.

What do police do under decriminalisation? The answer depends on what flavour of decriminalisation you have in mind. It could be that there is no offence in possessing a small quantity, in which case the holder gets on with his or her day and the police go about policing things that are defined as crimes. It might be that the law stipulates an escalating system of warnings, in which case names are taken and an administrative process takes its course. It might be that possession attracts a civil fine, like a traffic ticket.

It's important to bear in mind that we are not stepping into the void here.

It's nearly 30 years since South Australia decriminalised cannabis possession, making personal possession (up to 100g, or a plant or used bong) subject to a small fine. ACT and the Northern Territory introduced simiar reforms more than 20 years ago. The other states have not formally decriminalised, but operate cannabis-specific cautioning systems, which range from single (but compulsory) diversion in Queensland, two in New South Wales and Victoria and three within 10 years in Tasmania. The variety of penalties and benchmarks makes for a bit of a mess at the national level, but all the states operate regimes that are less conservative than New Zealand's – and have done for a long time.

They're not alone. Many countries – from Italy to Iran – have either forrmally decriminalised or effectively tolerate personal use and possession.

While any separation of cannabis use from criminalisation is welcome, these regimes often don't really do more than that to improve public health outcomes and they don't offer any useful control of production and distribution.

In the US, Colorado and Washington state have sought to address the latter issue via regulated commerce and although the market model doesn't seem unduly problematic so far, there's an increasing quantity of investment capital looking for a return, which may – as is the case in the alcohol market – rely on a smaller number of heavy users. Washington DC has, almost by accident, settled on a growing and gifting model that lets people grow their own but bans commerce.

Uruguay has taken a different approach – a state monopoly on sales – which has its own issues. The official state price has been set very low ($1 a gram) in an attempt to undercut the black market, which mostly deals in low-quality weed smuggled from Latin America's largest cannabis producer, Paraguay. The fact that the illicit product can't really compete on quality should in theory make government weed more attractive, but the government has been having trouble getting pharmacies to sign up to sell cannabis.

Dr Chris Wilkins of Massey University spoke to Wallace Chapman on Sunday about a model that may fit New Zealand better: cannabis clubs. These operate according to codes of conduct in Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Slovenia, some are members of a pan-European umbrella body – and the research on them is fairly promising. One interesting point to note is that many users join clubs in search of choice, including the choice of less potent marijuana.

So yes, we need to have the debate and it is good that we seem to have started doing that, but in doing so let's remember that we have options and examples at our disposal. It's not a mission to Mars.


There are those, of course, who believe they already have all the answers and, unsurprisingly, the most voluble of them come from that domain of the unchallenged reckon, commercial talk radio. In a Mike's Minute last week, Hosking was very sure of his ground.

We already have a problem with drugs – I don't think that's a statement anyone can run from. So decriminalisation makes that problem worse. Dope is a health hazard. Why would you want to promote a health hazard?

There's actually no good evidence that decriminalisation "makes the problem worse" (especially given that prohibition has procured New Zealand one of the highest per-capita use rates in the world) – and some to suggest the reverse. And there is a difference between "promoting" a product that carries public health risks and not criminalising people who may be at risk of health problems that only an oaf would need explained.

Another radio mouth, Mike Yardley, offers a similar string of logical fallacies.

And Karl du Fresne continues his long battle with his own generation.

What marks them all out is their absolute certainty in their own beliefs, in an area where it's sensible to to look at the data, listen to experts and question what you know. Or, as Hosking put it:

And as much as we bag the politicians, they are the buffer between generally sensible thinking and the nutters running the place based on polling.

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