Time to Stop Creating Cannabis Criminals
Guest Post by Albert Aitken
Kiwis like our cannabis. According to the UN’s 2012 Drug Report, we are among the world’s heaviest users of cannabis in the world with an estimated 70,000 New Zealanders smoking cannabis every day. In fact, we use much more cannabis than people in countries like the Netherlands where it has long been legal to smoke it in licenced “coffee shops”. Clearly, banning cannabis doesn’t stop people from using it. But it does make them criminals.
Here in New Zealand we have the highest arrest rate for cannabis per head of population in the world. More than 150,000 Kiwis now carry criminal records for cannabis offences, most of which are for small possession and not supply or large-scale trafficking. The New Zealand Police spend over $100 million per year enforcing the drug laws which are mostly cannabis-related. By contrast, there is no funding for educating adults on safe drug use. New Zealanders have been campaigning for years to decriminalize cannabis. In recent years, they have been encouraged by significant changes overseas.
Portugal has introduced radical changes to its drug laws; it decriminalized personal use of all drugs in order to combat an epidemic of hard drug addiction. The Council of Ministers in Portugal argued that “incarceration was less cost-effective than rehabilitation and led to higher rates of reoffending as well as driving addicts deeper into a criminal lifestyle.” Implemented in 2001, the policy decriminalized personal use while maintaining the illegality of the drugs themselves. Dealing in drugs is still against the law and carries heavy penalties. For drug users, however, Portugal now focuses on rehabilitation instead of prosecution.
In Portugal, the policy is widely recognized as a success. In the United States, it was used by people to push for decriminalizing cannabis. They were able to campaign successfully to get a vote on cannabis law reform included on the ballot in the 2012 election in the states of Colorado and Washington. In both states, a majority of voters opted to decriminalize cannabis, each making the possession of the drug legal for people aged 21 or over. The distribution and cultivation of cannabis was legalized in Colorado but remains an offence in Washington.
The momentum for change even went as far as the White House. Confronted by democratic votes in favour of cannabis, the US President Barak Obama softened his stance on the issue. “We’ve got bigger fish to fry”, he said about the policy of locking people up for possessing small quantities of cannabis. "It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal."
The President of the United States going soft on the “war on drugs”? Surely that must be a game changer! At least, that was what cannabis law reform advocates in New Zealand were hoping.
No such luck. In the lead-up to this year’s election, the Greens, traditionally in favour of decriminalization, suddenly went quiet on the issue. The Internet Party had favoured decriminalization but Mana has now vetoed the policy. No other party has ever been interested, even though a 2011 Law Commission report recommended convicting people for possession of cannabis only if they refused to attend a drug assessment programme.
Banning cannabis clearly isn't working. However, it looks as though the only way there will be any change to New Zealand’s cannabis laws is for public calls for it to become so loud that political parties will have to listen.