By Valeeria Slaiman
Cannabis has been criminalized in many countries, with the exception of medicinal use in certain circumstances. However, earlier this year Canada made the decision to legalise recreational use. New Zealand’s Green Party, as part of their political campaign, promised drug reform policy that would allow cannabis for personal use and further accelerate medicinal cannabis licenses for use. There has also been discussion of a non-binding referendum to be held in 2019 concerning the legalisation of recreational use of cannabis in New Zealand.
There are many common misconceptions about cannabis and its ‘detrimental’ effects often pushed down the throats of young people without sufficient evidence. For example, some groups claim that cannabis is a ‘gateway drug’ that can have deadly consequences. This is highly contradictory as cancer patients and victims of HIV/AIDS have been using cannabis medicinally for years in order to reduce nausea and vomiting, or to increase appetite. However, just like tobacco and alcohol, cannabis is an addictive substance if not used in moderation.
Reducing the Prison Population
In the past five years, 13,000 people have been convicted for the use or supply of cannabis in New Zealand. Quite recently there was a proposal to expand existing prisons, increasing beds to 1500-2000. This is important to note because if cannabis were legalised, it could potentially reduce the prison population by a significant margin. Instead of increasing the size of prisons, repealing drug law could remove the need for increase and reallocate money that would have gone towards expansion towards rehabilitative measures. Amnesty for people that were in possession of cannabis could also be achieved by instead offering drug and addiction programmes. Jacinda Ardern discussed in 2017 how she didn’t see conviction as a good response to users, stating that “cannabis needs to be treated as a health issue, not a legal issue.” Instead of criminalising the use of cannabis, the government should be taking a rehabilitative approach. If the government were to tax cannabis and use that money towards reforming mental health and addiction services, they could potentially decrease use or dependency on cannabis.
Current Laws Disproportionately Affect Maori
Maori have been negatively disadvantaged by New Zealand’s cannabis laws. There is research that suggests that Maori are more likely to be convicted for cannabis related offences. The drug is socially acceptable among the New Zealand population, yet because of the increased exposure Maori communities have with police enforcement they are more likely to be caught in possession or using cannabis. There is a discriminatory element to our justice system that could be eradicated if recreational use of cannabis was made legal. Maori currently make up 51% of the prison population, while 40% of those are incarcerated for drug offences. It is likely that decriminalising cannabis would lead to a significant decrease in Maori incarceration rates. Legalising recreational use of cannabis will also free up police resources to focus on more serious crimes, such as domestic violence which New Zealand has had trouble responding to.
The prohibition of cannabis leads to organised crime and violence, creating a black market which is difficult to regulate. In taking control of the distribution of cannabis, New Zealand could reap economic benefits and see potential crime reduction. Colorado is an example of a state that has legalised recreational use and experienced subsequent economic profit. In 2015, Colorado generated 135.1 million (USD) in cannabis taxes and fees. The first 40 million in the revenue was put directly into a works fund for schools. Pueblo, Colorado funded scholarships using the local cannabis tax, dedicating around $420,000 to scholarships for 210 students. This suggests that the legalisation of recreational cannabis will improve the economy and therefore allow the government to reallocate taxpayer money towards other avenues such as alleviating poverty, mental health or environmental issues. The legal sale of cannabis also opens up a market, therefore creating job opportunities.
It seems quite irrational to continue to criminalise recreational use of cannabis when other addictive substances, such as alcohol and tobacco are legal. Statistics in the US have shown that alcohol dependency rates are higher than cannabis dependency, but one is highly criminalised while the other is not. Both tobacco and alcohol can cause cancer, whereas cannabis can prevent or assist patients during chemotherapy. This being said, cannabis is not entirely good for people. There are side effects to the use such as short-term memory problems, severe anxiety or paranoia, hallucinations and addiction. However, in comparison to other addictive substances, cannabis is not as dangerous as alcohol. In 2012, alcohol was a contributing factor to 73 fatal crashes in New Zealand, these crashes resulted in 93 deaths. Whereas cannabis has caused no confirmed deaths at all and it is very unlikely to cause death unless consumed in extreme amounts.
Ultimately, people are going to access cannabis regardless of whether it is legal or illegal. According to a RNZ interview, nowadays methamphetamine is a lot easier to access than cannabis. They argued that legalising cannabis would defer people from seeking meth, which could also be a tenable reason to legalise cannabis. At the very least, the government will be able to control and profit from cannabis rather than allowing gang members to profit from the selling and trafficking.
In saying this, just like with alcohol, new laws should be made in ensuring that recreational use has its limitations. There would need to be age restrictions and laws surrounding driving. There have been cases in states and countries that have criminalised negligent driving while high, and these are things that the government would obviously need to consider if they were to legalise use. The referendum that the coalition may be processing next year is not binding but will offer perspective on what kiwis think about legalising recreational use of cannabis.
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