High Hopes? Weighing the Pros and Cons of Cannabis Decriminalisation

By Joshua Sade-Ina

New Zealanders will soon have the chance to decide whether Cannabis should be decriminalised and allowed for recreational use as part of an upcoming referendum set to take place in 2020. This is a key demand under the GreenParty’s confidence and supply agreement that is currently active with the Labour led Government. In the past, marijuana has been synonymous with freedom-camping hippies driving along some outback road in a Volkswagen Kombi.As a society this notion has since developed into a more serious tone, particularly sinceNew Zealand legalised  medicinal cannabis in 2018. This fulfilled the hopes of many with terminally illnesses that they may be able to live the remainder of their lives relatively comfortable and pain-free. This could soon be taken a step further in the upcoming referendum.Final referendum and legislative details have been freshly released, along with details on what a ‘yes’ vote could look like. The referendum is proposed to consist of a yes or no question on a piece of draft legislation. Should New Zealand vote ‘yes’, a minimum purchasing and use age of 20 will be set. There will be a public education program put in place, along with commercial controls on marketing and a no-advertising law. As such a referendum has been confirmed, it is important that an open and frank discussion takes place on the possible impacts such a move could have. This is so that, when the time comes for New Zealanders to head to the voting booths, the decision we make is both well-informed and educated.What does the law currently say?Marijuana is currently a class C drug, aside from cannabis oil which sits in class B.In December 2018, medicinal cannabiswas made legal for those that are terminally ill and have a medical practitioners approval. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, section 8, This meansthat approved users may use for their own individual purposes any prescribed controlled drug, or Class C controlled drug.Outside this, drug sentences vary depending on the offence. Those in possessionof Cannabis are liable for a maximum of 3 months imprisonment and/or a $500 fine. Those who are in possession of utensilsfor the purposes of taking cannabis are liable for a maximum of 1 years imprisonment and/or a $500 fine. The cultivationof Cannabis contains a maximum penalty of 7 years imprisonment. The supply or productionof cannabis plant product holds a maximum sentence of 8 years. It is important to note if you have more than 28 gramsof Cannabis (Roughly equivalent to 100 Cannabis cigarettes) you will be assumed to be a supplier of Cannabis.Various factorsdetermine what an individual’s total sentence will include. This includes possibly, age, level of offence (For example, personal versus commercial), previous criminal record, the amount possessed, supplied or consumed.Some of the pros and cons of decriminalising the use of recreational marijuana. There are positives and negatives associated with marijuana decriminalisation. It is important to look at these in order to ensure that when voting time does come, New Zealanders make an informed and educated decision as to the direction they would like to see New Zealand take.Details of the upcoming referendum are yet to be released. The following is by no means an absolute of what would occur should New Zealand move to decriminalise or legalise personal cannabis use. However, the following will attempt to look at some of the most impactful possible gains and repercussions that could be seen should New Zealand vote ‘yes.’ Economy and GovernmentThe current global cannabis market is estimated to be valuedat more than 21 Billion NZD. This is expected to rise to more than 134 Billion NZDby the year 2024. New Zealand could greatly benefit from joining this ever-increasing market. A leading New Zealand economist, Shamubeel Eaqub of Sense Partners, estimates that the New Zealand Government could earn up to $240 Millionin tax revenue a year by legalising cannabis and decriminalising all drugs. This would further see savings of $13 Million NZDby transitioning from a punitive system to one of health and rehabilitation, as well as a $83 Million NZDreduction in social spending from reducing the prison population. HealthThere are both pros and cons that could occur to the health system should decriminalization occur. Firstly a United Nations drug reportshowed Colorado, which has legalised non-medicinal cannabis, saw a remarkable increase in health service use following legalisation.. This increasein services is related to drug poisoning incidents, traffic accidents, hospital admissions and emergency room visits.A major positive that could come out of decriminalisation would be education and rehabilitation around drug use. Treating this as a personal choice and health issue rather than a crime could see a shift in our understanding of drugs and the safe use of them. Decriminalisation also opens pathways for education and resources on  reducing drug use. CrimeCannabis is currently the most widely producedand distributed illegal drug worldwide. It is also the most widely seized worldwide; New Zealand is no exception to this.The immediate impact that would take place should legalisation occur would be that it would remove the current powerthat illegal providers have, such as gangs and organised crime units. This move to regulate and maintain Cannabis legally would no doubt also see a drop in Police resources being used to seize such products.Another notable point is that Maori, who are arrested at disproportionallyfor marijuana related offences would see an immediate impact. Currently Maori make up 51 percent of imprisonment sentencesand 41 percent of convictions for Cannabis related offences, yet only make up roughly 15% of New Zealand’s population. Decriminalisation would see a reduction in these statistics immediately.An important issue that may arise from decriminalisation or legalisation is driving under the influence. Colorado has seen a year-on-year increase in deathscaused whilst driving under the influence of Cannabis. However, as with alcohol, Police can testfor the presence of mind-altering drugs, this would most probably be treated similarly to this. Youth and Young AdultsCannabis use is often said to be a gateway drugto stronger illicit drugs for youth. It has also been shown that if youth take mind-altering drugs at a young age, that they are two timesmore likely to proceed to a lifetime use of these drugs and others. Further, due to developing brains, youth and some young adults, mainly those below the age of 16, who use cannabis have an increased likelihood of developing drug abuse disorders and mental health disorders; 1 in 6 who use cannabis at this age will develop these issues.The referendum proposes to set a minimum age of 20 for the purchase and use of recreational cannabis. However, it remains to be seen if such legalisation would further reduce or increase the likelihood of younger individuals gaining access to cannabis, or if they would continue to buy through black market avenues. To ConcludeIt is yet to be determined whether New Zealand joins the bandwagon of the ever-increasing liberal approach to recreational cannabis as seen around the globe. However, New Zealanders will have the opportunity to have their voices heard on this matter in the coming year. Regardless of which way individuals plan to vote, it is important to understand both the repercussions and gains that such a move could have. Currently recreational use and distribution of Cannabis is a criminal offence, but will New Zealand take the path of personal responsibility and a liberal approach to this? I for one, know exactly which way I will be voting.The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.Featured image: https://pixabay.com/photos/weed-plant-smoking-smoke-grass-3545217/