Legalising cannabis

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I started 2018 with an unmistakable sense of optimism – after years of procrastinating and avoiding the evidence, the Government was going to hold a referendum on legalising cannabis by 2020. Could this be the beginning of an exciting new era of drug policy and drug law reform? Where policy was evidence based, where the harms from drug use could be effectively addressed, and where the damage from criminalisation could be stopped?

Imagine my despondency at Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement that she will not yet commit to legalising cannabis, even if the public vote for it in the referendum. I feel cheated. I am also concerned that the referendum is going to be brought forward to next year, to avoid it affecting the election campaign in 2020, with no hint of the necessary public information campaign to properly support the referendum.

My biggest fear is that the whole thing will end up being a rushed, misinformed, ill-thought-through debacle, and we will have missed a really important chance to make a difference; to respond to drug use and drug users differently and more effectively; to stop the harms related to underground markets and criminalisation.  Prohibition of drugs has not stopped people using or having problems with them.

Here’s what I hope, though.

I hope the powers that be will take action very soon to provide a balanced, well-produced, well-thought-out information campaign, to ensure New Zealanders are fully aware of what they are voting for.

For example, how many New Zealanders know that since the ‘war on drugs’ started in the 1970s drug use has steadily risen? Or that drugs are now more available, more accessible, cheaper and purer than even before? How many of us are aware that the majority of drug-using episodes cause no harm to users or communities (just like the majority of alcohol-using episodes).

How many New Zealanders know that ‘getting tough’ and increasing penalties has no impact on supply? Or that youth drug use in Portugal after decriminalisation has not risen and young people in Amsterdam (where drug policy is liberalised) start experimenting with drugs at a later age than in other countries?  Or that in Uruguay, where cannabis was legalised under a strict regulatory regime in 2017, drug-related crime has dropped by 20 per cent and legalisation has been a resounding success?

More importantly, how many New Zealanders are aware the ‘war on drugs’ has not effectively addressed the harms related to the use of illegal drugs, and that in many cases it has actually created or increased these harms?

The need for an informed debate free of stigmatising myths about drugs and drug users is urgently needed. We can no longer ignore the harms our approach to drug use is causing. The majority of drug offences in New Zealand that are prosecuted are for cannabis possession – are we really going to carry on wasting our time?

So I hope this referendum is treated with the respect and seriousness it deserves. We are at a very important crossroads where we can decide to make a difference or we can carry along a path that has created, instead of solving, harms from drug use. If we can do this for the flag, surely we can do it for an issue that has the ability to be a game-changer for many of our most vulnerable New Zealanders.

I hope myths around legalisation and decriminalisation are busted instead of being bought into. For example, that legalisation will make previously unavailable drugs available: cannabis is already widely available in New Zealand and, according to the Ministry of Health, is the third most popular drug (after alcohol and tobacco). Globally, it is estimated one in 20 adults, or a quarter of a billion people between the ages of 15 and 64, used at least one drug in 2014. That’s roughly the equivalent of the combined populations of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. It is a myth that illegal drugs are not available in our society.

And finally I hope that if New Zealanders vote in favour of cannabis legalisation it gives the Government the backbone to embark on a radical and wide-reaching reform of our current drug laws, which are outdated, not evidence based, cause a great deal of damage and suffering, and are no longer fit for purpose – this is what the evidence tells us, and it is imperative we act on it.

Dr Fiona Hutton is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington. This piece was first published in the NZ Herald, 13 June 2018.

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