Recreational use of Cannabis: Legalise or Decriminalise?

A referendum asking voters whether they support or oppose a bill "designed to reduce cannabis-related harm" will be held in October 2020. Which choice will most reduce harm?

A national referendum on the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use will be held in conjunction with Aotearoa New Zealand’s general election on October 17, 2020.

The referendum statement the public will be asked to respond to will read:

Yes, I support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill

No, I do not support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill

At 148 pages long, it is unlikely that many people will read through the proposed ‘Cannabis Legalisation and Control’ Bill before they vote.

According to the government, “The Bill’s main purpose is to reduce cannabis-related harm to individuals, families/whānau and communities.

The question is, which choice maximises the opportunity to reduce harm?

Resources on the science of cannabis (including why medicinal cannabis and hemp are not included in the referendum) and research from overseas jurisdictions that have legalised cannabis for recreational use, can be found here.

The current legal context for recreational cannabis use in New Zealand

After caffeine, alcohol and tobacco, cannabis is the fourth most widely used recreational drug in New Zealand.  Given that the first three are legal, this makes cannabis the most widely used illegal drug in New Zealand.  Based on research 80% of New Zealanders who are now in their forties, have used cannabis at least once.

Cannabis use in New Zealand is governed by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 and subsequent amendments.  These laws classify a wide range of controlled and illegal drugs according to the level of risk of harm posed to people who misuse them.

The major risks connected to cannabis use appear associated with those who begin using in early to mid-adolescence; and/or those who use frequently (on more days than not); and/or those who are dependent.  People in this group comprise between five and ten percent of New Zealand’s population.  The range of significant negative outcomes for this group include

      • loss of psychological function, including the development of psychoses
      • loss of ability to think intelligently,
      • poor respiratory and gum health,
      • poor educational achievement and leaving school early
      • failure to obtain and hold a job
      • dependence on social benefits, and
      • risk of criminal conviction or incarceration.

With recreational use of cannabis prevalent in our community, police had begun to adopt a discretionary approach. People in possession of small quantities of cannabis were often diverted away from prosecution, through the confiscation of their drugs and the issuing of a formal warning. This Police discretion was legally affirmed with the passing of the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act in August 2019.

The Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act specifies that when contemplating prosecution for possession and use, consideration should be given to whether a health-centred or therapeutic approach would be more beneficial to both the individual and the public interest.

The 2019 amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act means we currently have a de-facto decriminalisation approach to cannabis in New Zealand. The referendum question appears to offer only two choices – legalise or criminalise the use of recreational cannabis. However, there is a third option – that of a formal decriminalision of recreational cannabis use. Decriminalisation is a preferred choice of many including being recommended in the Dunedin study.

Decriminalising recreational cannabis use

Decriminalisation is not a new option. While the specifics of decriminalisation programmes differ in jurisdictions around the world, the intent of each is to divert people away from the criminal justice system and into assessment, education and/or treatment. Scientific evidence concludes that arrests and convictions do not lead to a reduction in recreational cannabis use.
Research shows that Australia, where all six states and two territories have some form of decriminalisation programmes in place, has very low rates of imprisonment for drug offences with less that 1% of offenders imprisoned for use or possession.

So what are the benefits of decriminalisation over legalisation?

Decriminalisation of cannabis use in New Zealand would allow our drug policies and administration to be shaped through evidence based research, before a possible move to legalisation. This evidence would be from both jurisdictions that have decriminalised cannabis and jurisdictions that have legalised cannabis.
Meanwhile, people who use recreational cannabis would not face criminal prosecution. Further:

  • Criminal justice costs, including police, court and prison costs would be reduced
  • There would be a reduction in the stigma and impact costs that a criminal conviction can have on a person’s education, employment, housing and travel opportunities throughout their lives
  • Perceived barriers to educating the public, particularly young people, on the harms of cannabis use would be eliminated
  • Perceived barriers to users accessing health care for cannabis related harms would be eliminated
  • People who use cannabis problematically could be directed into treatment, improving public health outcomes.

Decriminalisation is in keeping with the health and harm reduction measures advocated by the government and agencies including the New Zealand Drug Foundation. Is it an option worth considering?

For discussion
  • In what ways is the referendum question adequate or inadequate?
  • Is recreational cannabis use a health issue alone?
  • What similarities and differences in the harms and benefits do you see between decriminalisation and legalisation of recreational cannabis use?
  • Does the current legal situation of police discretion with respect to prosecuting for possession of a small amount of cannabis help or confuse the referendum discussion?
  • How do we ensure that voters are adequately informed on issues around the recreational use of cannabis?  Is it up to the individual – their civic duty – to fully inform themselves?
  • How can we ensure that balanced, evidenced based arguments are heard on the different sides of the recreational cannabis debate?
  • To what degree can you rely on information disseminated through the media?
  • Is it adequate to rely on media delivered information alone?
  • Does New Zealand trying to eliminate smoking and be “Smoke Free by 2025” impact the debate about the recreational use of cannabis?

More cannabis resources…

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Q & A Cannabis Referendum 2020

Answering some of the frequently asked questions about the upcoming referendum on the legalisation of recreational cannabis use in New Zealand.

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