One Question Quiz
US president Joe Biden and prime minister Jacinda Ardern
US president Joe Biden and prime minister Jacinda Ardern

OPINIONPoliticsOctober 14, 2022

Why Aotearoa should decriminalise cannabis and overturn convictions

US president Joe Biden and prime minister Jacinda Ardern
US president Joe Biden and prime minister Jacinda Ardern

Last week US president Joe Biden announced he would pardon federal convictions for cannabis possession. The NZ Drug Foundation’s Sarah Helm explains why our government should follow suit. 

For as long as most of us can remember, the United States has led the charge in the global “War on Drugs”. This disastrous 50-year-old experiment in criminalising people who use drugs while spending billions on law enforcement has caused untold harm and suffering across the world (including New Zealand), especially for Black people, Indigenous peoples, and people of colour. 

So even though Biden’s announcement will only affect the relatively small number of people with federal cannabis convictions (most minor cannabis offences are prosecuted at a state level), the fact it came from a serving US president is momentous, and signals the latest in a global shift away from the catastrophe of prohibition. 

Over the weekend we launched a petition calling on the New Zealand government to decriminalise cannabis and follow Biden’s lead by pardoning cannabis use and possession convictions. Here’s why.

More than 120,000 people are living with the effects of a conviction 

I was shocked when I saw this number. More than 120,000 New Zealanders have been convicted for cannabis use or possession since 1980 and have had to suffer the consequences of living with a criminal record. Not just the stigma, but the serious impacts on gaining employment, on being able to rent a house, and on being able to travel. All of this can compound, snowball and cause serious life-long harm.

I’ve heard devastating stories over the last few days from people whose lives have been turned upside down because of a conviction.

Photos: Getty Images

Convictions have declined markedly since the 80s, but don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t happen any more – 900 people were convicted for cannabis possession in the last year. 

650,000 New Zealanders use cannabis each year

It’s our most popular illicit drug and 80% of us will have tried it by the time we’re 25. A law that makes most of us a criminal is absurd on its own. But guess who prohibition impacts the most…

The law is racist

History books will show that cannabis prohibition was racist from the beginning – a way to control civil rights and Indigenous movements. And our law still has incredibly racist impacts. Almost half of those convicted for use or possession of cannabis last year were Māori. Just a friendly reminder that Māori only make up 17% of the population.

Most New Zealanders want decriminalisation

Ever since the referendum to legalise and regulate cannabis narrowly failed in 2020, it’s been used as an excuse to resist any other progress on drug law reform. 

But while the specific proposal for a legal regulated market proved a bridge too far for half of the country, polling has consistently shown a large majority of New Zealanders support moves towards a health-based drug approach, including decriminalisation of cannabis. 

Polling from the Helen Clark Foundation last year showed 69% support for decriminalisation of cannabis, and polling we’ve done recently showed 68% want our outdated 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act replaced with a health-based approach.

Criminalisation doesn’t deter use, but it does cause harm

One thing criminalisation is really good at doing is perpetuating stigma and stopping people from seeking help if they need it. In fact, criminalising cannabis does more harm than the substance itself.

Cannabis is far less harmful than a toxic carcinogen you can buy from the supermarket

Let’s be clear, cannabis, like any drug, does cause harm. 

But as is obvious to anyone who’s been out on the town or is familiar with the effects of each substance, alcohol is far more harmful than cannabis. The science on this is clear too. Here’s a nice graph from a recent paper looking at the harms of poppers and nangs that, helpfully, included lots of other drugs.

Weighted harm scores of various substances to users and others, from ‘A comparative study of the harms of nitrous oxide and poppers using the MCDA approach’

Police discretion isn’t working 

Another excuse that’s used to resist change is our system of police discretion. Described as “pseudo-decriminalisation” by some, this is a section of our drug law that gives police discretion not to prosecute people for drug possession. 

The law was strengthened in 2019, and police are now directed to only prosecute people for drug use if it’s in the “public interest”. 

Sounds good, but what does that even mean? And why are we making individual officers ponder such a weighty question rather than giving them a clear direction?

As you might imagine, discretion leads to all sorts of unequal outcomes, influenced by the varying biases and policing practices of each officer and district. 

The positive is we have seen a steady decline in prosecutions since the 2019 change, but it hasn’t been large enough and people keep being put through the justice system for using cannabis. More than 2000 people were convicted of low-level drug offences last year; 900 of those were for cannabis possession.

It’s a waste of police resources

Crime is a hot topic right now. Criminalising cannabis is a complete waste of police time that causes more harm than it prevents – and that’s time that could be spent tackling far more important issues and keeping people safe. 

We’re falling behind the rest of the world

It’s not just the US that’s moving away from prohibition. Dozens of countries, including Canada, Mexico, Thailand, Israel, South Africa, Portugal, Spain, Argentina and parts of Australia have either legalised or decriminalised personal use of cannabis. 

We should be going further, but it would be a step in the right direction

The Drug Foundation has long called for a complete overhaul of our drug laws that removes criminal penalties for all drug use and instead puts in place more support for education and treatment. That’s a position 61% of New Zealanders agree with according to our latest polling.

You simply can’t pretend to have a health-based approach to drugs while wielding the threat of locking people up. Most New Zealanders understand that. But we also know that drugs are a political football. We’ve been forced to settle for tiny incremental steps like changes to police discretion because politicians are in a standoff. 

So while decriminalisation of cannabis would only be a small step, it’s one we’d gladly take. 

If you agree, please sign our petition. 

Keep going!