The New Zealand Drug Foundation has just released a proposed model for the legalisation and regulation of cannabis in Aotearoa. With the 2020 referendum fast approaching, what should the government be considering in their approach to this legislation?
As the days tick down towards 2020 and the referendum on cannabis legalisation the NZ Drug Foundation has been formulating its ideas for the government on how best to approach and carry out what could be a huge systemic change.
At a parliamentary symposium on Friday experts from Aotearoa and the US spoke on the harmful impacts of our current drug legislation and offered global perspectives.
For the Drug Foundation, the central message remains clear: cannabis use needs to be treated as a health issue, not a criminal one.
The focus for the government, says the Drug Foundation’s Ross Bell, needs to be those who’ve been let down by current drug laws.
“If New Zealanders vote to legalise cannabis, we need to be ready with a draft law that will protect young people, take money from the hands of the black market and put that towards healthcare instead.”
The proposed model outlines five goals for the government to focus on regarding the legalisation and regulation of cannabis. These are:
Minimise the harm caused by cannabis use
By regulating the market with the enforcement of age-limits for cannabis purchase, reducing convictions, especially for young Māori people, as well as increasing accessibility to treatments for problematic use, drug legislation will keep some of our most vulnerable safer than the current system allows.
Safer communities with less drug-related crime
Any new law would mean the profit is kept out of the pockets of gangs, and can be used to fund treatments for those suffering negative effects from substances. Police efforts can be shifted towards more serious crime and small-scale cannabis businesses can be grown in areas that were previously disadvantaged by prohibition.
Helen Clark told the symposium part of legalisation should be scrubbing criminal records received on the basis of cannabis use, cultivation and sale. She said part of this needs to include education and support for these people to move from the illegal market into the legal one.
“If we don’t do that, where are they going to go? We have to allow them the opportunity to turn what was their conviction into something that will help them. We can’t overlook that.”
Māori people account for over 50% of New Zealand’s prison population, and over 40% of incarcerated Māori people have drug-related charges. There needs to be specific focus on Māori health outcomes should legalisation occur, to ensure Māori people no longer feel the weight of drug convictions at such a disproportionate level, the Drug Foundation stresses.
Khylee Quince is an associate professor and the associate head of law school at AUT, and says the 2020 referendum can be the start of a better relationship between Māori people and the law, but it won’t change New Zealand overnight.
“We need to have conversations about how legalisation will impact Māori now because once the horse has bolted, the horse has bolted. We can’t legalise and then start to think about how it will impact Māori later on. With legalisation, the grey market won’t disappear, the grey market will shift … We need to have thought about the specifics around exemptions for home grown cannabis, sharing it amongst whanau, regulation among community and investment to allow Māori to enter the market and not be shut out of it.”
Uphold human rights
This goal is based on the disproportionate long-term harms caused by conviction. The Drug Foundation wants the government to recognise that certain drug convictions can have an unreasonably negative effect on the convicted person’s future.
Quince says one of the negative side-effects of drug criminalisation is incarcerated people are removed from the electoral roll when they are serving time in prison.
“Some of the Māori people weren’t on the electoral roll in the first place, and some of those who were before, don’t re-enrol. Without a say in these things, incarcerated people, the people in our communities who are the most affected, are not getting a say.”
An evidence-based policy that responds to address harms
Finally, to ensure people receive the help they need when suffering from drug-related health issues, the Drug Foundation urges that money is spent on harm reduction methods rather than enforcement. The abolishment of prohibition allows flexibility in the way drug cases are handled.
Deborah Small, Executive Director of Break the Chain, a US-based anti-war on drugs organisation, says there is a global problem with how we perceive drug users.
“Our focus is always on the drug, it’s not on the reason why people are doing the drug. If it’s not cannabis, it’s meth, it’s crack, it’s heroin, but it’s all the same background story, and we need to start listening to it.”