Cannabis here to stay — it’s law that has to change
Both National and Labour have distanced themselves from a survey reported in the Herald that a majority of New Zealanders want the laws relating to cannabis to change. The Prime Minister explained that supporting a change in our drug laws would send the wrong message to our youth. Key is correct to be concerned. Cannabis is increasing in potency. It can cause psychosis in some people and be a gateway drug in some instances. If a person becomes addicted, it has the capacity to diminish their life over the long term. Although cannabis does not cause as much damage as legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco or illegal drugs like methamphetamine, it still comes with clear risks.
The problem is that the youth Key is concerned about are already living in a world awash in drugs. Their world is one in which cannabis users have gone from 147 million users in 1988, to 182 million in 2016. Estimates suggest New Zealand contributes between 288,000 and 400,000 users to this total. In some cohorts, over two thirds of them have used cannabis by the time they are 21. Regular users assert they can source cannabis within 20 minutes if they want it. The Dark Net will widen supply options even more. The black market for cannabis has nearly trebled in 20 years, with an estimated value of $550 million per year. This total is about five sixths of the total market for all illegal drugs in our country.
It was not always this way. New Zealand only fully prohibited cannabis in the 1950s and meaningfully joined the international war against drugs in the 1960s. Prior to this, our annual drug arrests were fewer than 50 per year. Today, 13 per cent of our prison population, over 1250 people, are incarcerated for drugs. Many other people are convicted but do not go to jail. Annually, there are over 10,000 convictions involving cannabis, of which at least half are related to personal use and/or possession.
If reductions in demand or supply of cannabis had resulted after five decades of effort, an argument could be made for prohibition. This is not the case. Criminals have become rich and tens of thousands of our citizens have convictions for what our leaders, as do those in Russia, China, and many countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, assure us is the correct path. This is a path of prohibition, “just say no” and strong penalties. Peter Dunne suggests this pathway is fenced by regard for “compassion, proportion and innovation”. None of this is true.
Compassion would require treating drug addicts as citizens in need of help, not criminals in need of punishment. Compassion would ensure that people, especially the young, with minor infringements such as possession of drugs for personal use, do not obtain criminal records that have implications completely out of proportion to the crime, that destroy options for employment and travel for the rest of their lives. Compassion would send such people to professionals involved in health and social work, not to the courts.
Proportion would require evaluating the risk that drugs possess by looking at the harm they inflict on both individuals and the wider community, and allocating resources accordingly. The police currently spend about 600,000 hours per year on illicit drug enforcement. Over half of this time (333,000) goes on cannabis. When the costs of the health service as well the courts and correction are added to those of the police, the total social costs for all illegal drugs in New Zealand are $351 million per year. Cannabis, which causes much less harm than stimulants or opium, takes $306 million of this total.
Innovation is not repeating the same thing and expecting a different result. Here, innovation is about trying to reduce harm by regulating the production, distribution and sale of the drugs which are currently illegal. Four states in America have already adopted this approach to cannabis. A further five states will vote on the matter in November. The prime minister of Canada is set to embark upon a policy aimed at reducing harm and maximising benefits by reducing criminal activities surrounding the illegal cannabis trade, creating jobs and collecting tax from its sale. That tax will then be ploughed back into policing the regulations, education and health to inform and deal with the addicts who will always be present whether the drug is legal or illegal, and the innocent, who wish to take a chance on a drug with clear risks.
Without such layers of compassion, proportion and innovation, the emperor has no clothes.