Rethinking Reefer Madness

…Decriminalisation in 2020?

In November 2016, while a global audience watched the outcome of the U.S Presidential election, cannabis legalisation advocates awaited the results from a different kind of vote. Five U.S States – Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and California – voted to legalize recreational cannabis, a decision that will bring significant cultural and economic shifts.

Paving the road ahead of them, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington have all legalised, regulated and taxed cannabis for recreational use by adults, applying similar laws that govern alcohol. They have also begun to think more clearly about harm reduction. For example, in Colorado, the ‘Department of Public Health and Environment’ has assessed the knowledge gaps related to recreational cannabis and developed protective policies. This has led to positive outcomes such as educational programs specifically targeting Colorado residents and visitors about safe, legal and responsible use of cannabis (Ghosh, et al., 2016).

Increased tax revenue, from both medicinal and legal cannabis, also earned Colorado around $70 million in tax revenue from 1 July 2014 to 30 June 2015 (Basu, 2015). In contrast, a 2016 NZ report calculated that cannabis-related offences cost the taxpayer over half a billion dollars per annum: $275.6 million in lost tax revenue and $305.9 million in the processing of offences through the criminal justice sector (Ministry of Health, 2016). With a population of a similar size to Colorado (5.35mn vs 4.75mn), should New Zealand also look towards the positive impacts that legal cannabis has to offer, to offset the cost of battling ‘the crime problem’?

The ‘war on drugs’ and its repressive policies against drug-users are harm-inducing rather than harm-reducing. It has resulted in more damage to the user without satisfactorily tackling drug problems on either an individual or societal level (Buchanan & Young, 2000). Current drug policy assumes that ‘use’ equates to ‘misuse’ as well as the notion that all illicit drug-taking is problematic, and therefore should be illegal. Māori and European men living in the lowest socio-economic quintile are the most likely to report using illicit drugs (Minstry of Health, 2010). Harshly punitive sanctions and the over-policing of drug-users not only cuts off opportunities for individuals to find meaningful employment, but also stigmatises and deters problematic drug-users from seeking help and support services for fear of legal sanctions (Buchanan & Young, 2000).

We are fast approaching the next review of the National Drug Policy in 2020. The current policy aims to “minimise alcohol and other drug-related harm and promote and protect health and wellbeing”. It is based around the control of illicit drug-use, as defined by the Misuse of Drugs Act (1975) and its subsequent amendments. This outdated piece of legislation fails to scientifically analyse the harms of controlled substances, and even arbitrarily excludes drugs such as alcohol or tobacco (Nutt, King, & Phillips, 2010).

Nutt et al. (2011) identified that there is no medical or scientific rationale for how we currently perceive, rank or regulate drugs. Currently, perceptions of ‘acceptable’ drugs or who is a ‘drug-user’ are led by socially constructed representations of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ drugs. These social constructions have led to widespread acceptance of seriously harmful legal substances, such as alcohol and tobacco, and the rejection of illicit substances that, scientifically, are less harmful to individuals and to society generally. This bifurcation of ‘good’ drugs and ‘bad’ drugs means that users of illicit drugs may not seek supports or treatments, and are subject to harmful controls and stigmatisation.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalised all illicit drugs in an attempt to fight a growing intravenous drug-epidemic. Since the late 1980s, a significant population of intravenous heroin users were becoming increasingly sick and isolated from the community (hughes & Stevens, 2010). Rates of infectious diseases such as HIV, AIDS, Tuberculosis, Hepatitis B and C began to soar and health officials grew concerned with the social exclusion and marginalisation of drug users. Law enforcement officials, among others, also began to see that the criminalisation of drug use was increasingly becoming part of the problem, not a solution (Hughes, 2006).

In that country, legislative reform and a new national drug strategy were seen as critically linked. Decriminalisation sought to provide a more humane legal framework. And, by expanding policies and redistributing resources across multiple areas – of prevention, harm reduction, treatment, social reintegration and supply reduction – the strategy opened up new responses to drug problems. In a decade, Portugal: reduced drug use among problematic drug users and adolescents; decreased the burden of drug offenders on the criminal justice system; enhanced uptake in drug treatment programs; limited opiate-related deaths and infectious diseases; increased drug seizures by authorities; and reduced the retail prices of drugs (Greenwald, 2009; Hughes & Stevens, 2010). The redistribution and refocusing of resources led to wholly positive outcomes for users and society.

How we currently perceive, rank and regulate drugs in NZ needs re-examination. As Julian Buchanan (2015) and Fiona Hutton (2016) demonstrate, prohibition does not address the harms of drug use (whether it be legal or not). Rather, it criminalises users and widens the net of criminal justice. Given the benefits of cannabis legalisation in North America, and the decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal, now is the time for NZ politicians to be brave and do something to elicit change in a broken system. The 2020 National Drug Policy is our opportunity for positive regulatory and decriminalising action.


Angus Lindsay is a Third-Year BA student, double majoring in Criminology and Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW). He was recently awarded a VUW Summer Research scholarship where he examined human rights abuses in Japanese WW2 prison camps.


Basu, T. (2015, September 15). Colorado Raised More Tax Revenue From Marijuana Than From Alcohol. Retrieved from

Buchanan, J. (2015). Ending Prohibition with a hangover? British Journal of Community Justice, 13(1), 55.

Ghosh, T., Van Dyke, M., Maffey, A., Whitley, E., Gillim-Ross, L., & Wolk, L. (2016). The Public Health Framework of Legalized Marijuana in Colorado. American Journal of Public Health, 106(1), 21-27.

Greenwald, G. (2009). Drug decriminalization in Portugal: lessons for creating fair and successful drug policies. Washington D.C: Cato Institude.

Hughes, C. E., & Stevens, A. (2010). What can we learn from the Portuguese decriminalization of illicit drugs? British Journal of Criminology.

Hutton, F. (2016). Legal Highs and Their Use in New Zealand: A critical analysis of New Zealand drug policy. Prison Service Journal(227), 29-37.

Ministry of Health. (2015). Cannabis Use 2012/13: New Zealand Health Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

Ministry of Health. (2016). The New Zealand Drug Harm Index. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

Minstry of Health. (2010). Drug use in New Zealand: Key Results of the 2007/08 New Zealand Drug and Alcohol Use Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

Nutt, D. J., King, L. A., & Phillips, L. D. (2010). Drug Harms in the U.K: A multicriteria decision analysis. The Lancet, 376(9752), 1558-1565.

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