Plots at Hikurangi Enterprises. Photo: Supplied

A real chance for New Zealand to end prohibition and its pernicious impacts

The bill unveiled this week represents an excellent opportunity to take control of the supply of cannabis and properly reduce harms, writes Joe Boden, director of the Christchurch Health and Development Study.

By now the harms associated with cannabis use are well-known. Research from New Zealand – in particular the Christchurch and Dunedin longitudinal studies – has shown that cannabis use, in particular for younger and heavier users, is known to be associated with mental health problems such as depression, psychotic symptoms and cannabis dependence.

It is also associated with poorer educational and employment outcomes, and a range of more general health problems such as impaired lung function. However, these problems have existed, and continue to exist in our communities despite decades of cannabis prohibition. Prohibition does not stop people using cannabis, and our own research in the Christchurch Health and Development Study has shown that arrests and convictions for cannabis do not deter people from using the drug.

In addition, prohibition has a strong element of racial bias, in that Māori are much more likely to be arrested or convicted than non-Māori, even after accounting for different rates of use. Furthermore, the criminalisation of drug users itself is one of the major harms associated with cannabis use. To put it plainly, prohibition has been an utter failure that continues to waste police time, resources and money, has kept the trade in cannabis under the control of gangs and organised crime, and does not stop anyone using the drug. It is well past time to try something different.

This week the justice minister, Andrew Little, released details of the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, which would lift the status quo of prohibition. All of us will get to vote on whether that bill becomes law next year as part of a referendum attached to the 2020 general election. The bill represents an excellent opportunity to take control of the supply of cannabis, regulate its sale, improve the safety and purity of the product, and redirect illicit trade of the drug to legal, taxable sources.

It should be noted that there has been a recent change to the long-established prohibition regime. An amendment of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1975) passed in August 2019, changed the law so that drug use is now subject to a “soft decriminalisation”, requiring that the police are to ensure that drug possession for personal use is treated as a health issue, and that arrest and prosecution for drug offences should only occur when such prosecution can be shown to be “in the public good”. However, as welcome as this change was, the result is that the police still have discretion in choosing whom to charge and prosecute, and it still leaves the business of the cannabis trade in the hands of gangs and criminals who do not pay taxes on their profits, who do not test and label their products, and who do not ask for proof of age from their customers.

The details of the new bill are generally very encouraging. The proposed law will prohibit use by teenagers, who are most vulnerable to cannabis-related harm, by setting the age of use at 20. It would of course be naïve to assume that those under 20 will not be able to access cannabis, but efforts at reducing access to tobacco among young people over the past 30 years have been relatively successful.

The law creates an authority which would license cannabis suppliers and retailers, and have the power to suspend licences where conditions are breached. The law will also regulate where cannabis can be consumed (private homes and licensed premises which are not allowed to sell either alcohol or tobacco), and how much can be purchased (14 grams per day). There will be no advertising of cannabis products allowed, and products sold in licensed premises will be subject to plain packaging, and will be tested and limited in terms of THC content, increasing the safety of cannabis flower and derivative products.

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There will also be a significant harm reduction by eliminating most criminal penalties around cannabis use. Cannabis products will attract a tax based on weight and THC content, and this income will be earmarked for health and education. Also, for the avid gardeners among us, people will have the option of growing up to two cannabis plants on their own properties.

A further positive aspect of the bill that has not received much attention as yet is that the authority will have the capacity and mandate to ensure that data will be collected on cannabis use across the whole of New Zealand, something that has not been undertaken particularly well or regularly to this point. Furthermore, the authority will also support research that informs evidence-based approaches to harm-reduction strategies. These are precisely the tools that we need to ensure that any change to cannabis laws are not increasing cannabis-related harm in our communities.

There remain some ambiguities in the proposed law, and there are some things that are not as positive. For example, the draft bill has a provision that any person providing cannabis to a person under age 20 is subject to a fine of up to $150,000 and up to four years’ imprisonment. This will clearly be difficult to enforce, and seems far too draconian for a law that aims to view cannabis through a health lens, rather than a justice lens.

It is to be hoped that these issues and others (such as pricing, location of retail outlets, and related matters) will be ironed out over the next few months while the bill is debated. Overall, however, the draft bill is a positive step for New Zealand to begin treating cannabis use as a health issue, rather than a criminal justice issue.


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