#Guest Blog: Ten Reasons to Legalise and Regulate Cannabis

Heading into 2017 I was excited about the prospect of drug and justice reform taking an important role in our Election. Canada and California recently voted in favour of full cannabis legalisation (as well as many other American states). From 1 January 2018, anyone travelling to California will be able to buy legal cannabis; they will know what levels of THC are in the products they are consuming; they will not have to deal with gangs; and, they will no longer be criminalised for engaging in an act that causes very little direct harm  to others.

While working at the Ministry of Justice as a policy analyst, I encountered a broken system. Communities are losing control of their youth through meth addiction, and our prison population moved over 10,000 inmates for the first time, leading the National government to announce a new $1.2 billion prison. The New Zealand Government continues to be the focus of negative international attention, as Maori make up over 50 percent of the prison population but only 15 percent of the population.

Instead of dealing with these issues, both National and Labour announced more Police on the beat, but no reform of the drug and justice sectors. Both intend to implement a medical cannabis system for the terminally ill, where the only available products are expensive foreign sprays such as Sativex ($1500 a month) prescribed by experts. They intend to pour money into Big Pharma, while locking up local growers, and leaving a $150 million a year black-market with the gangs (as estimated by Treasury).

Fortunately for voters, The Opportunities Party has provided hope. They have made these issues a priority when no one else would (the Green Party do not have drug and justice reform in their top 24 priority policies, although I recognise the work they have done in advancing the issue): The Opportunities Party has put forward a policy that recognises the damage that criminal convictions do to people. Our own National Drug Policy tells us that we must treat drug use as a health issue: then why do we criminalise cannabis users, and underfund our rehabilitation services by an estimated $150 million according to NZ Drug Foundation head Ross Bell (the same amount that is currently going into the bank accounts of a criminal underground)

Here are ten key reasons why you should reject Labour and National on this issue, and support any Party that promotes a policy of full cannabis legalisation with regulation ensuring all taxed revenue goes into drug rehabilitation and education programmes.

1. Prohibition doesn’t work

There is no historical correlation between tougher policing of drugs and a reduction in their use. Portugal acknowledged that no matter how severe their approach to policing drugs was, hard drug use didn’t reduce. Portugal decriminalised all drug use, and put the money that would otherwise go into enforcement into rehabilitation and drug education. The number of addicts registered in drug-substitution programmes rose from 6,000 in 1999 to over 24,000 in 2008, reflecting a big rise in treatment (but not in drug use). Between 2001 and 2007 the number of Portuguese who said they have taken heroin at least once in their lives increased by just 0.1%. For most other drugs, the figures fell: Portugal has one of Europe's lowest lifetime usage rates for cannabis. And most notably, heroin and other drug abuse has decreased among vulnerable younger age-groups.

2. Cannabis use causes relatively very low levels of harm  to others

The criminalisation of cannabis violates the liberal principle that the boundary of the criminal jurisdiction should be direct ‘harm to others’. Punishing individuals with a criminal conviction also leads to lost job opportunities and in all but the most extreme cases of hard drug use, leads to worse outcomes. Criminalisation also defeats the purpose of prohibiting cannabis for the benefit of potential users. This is particularly problematic for a drug that is as widespread as cannabis, as the law criminalises a large number of kiwis, which was surely not the intent of the criminal jurisdiction. The 2012/13 cannabis survey conducted by the Ministry of Health found 11 percent of adults aged 15 years and over reported using cannabis in the last 12 months. Cannabis was used by 15 percent of men and 8.0 percent of women. Māori adults and adults living in the most deprived areas were more likely to report using cannabis in the last 12 months.

3. Prohibition is very expensive

It costs over $100,000 a year to imprison someone, and having a drug conviction can lead individuals into other types of crime through association with a criminal underground and the criminal justice system, as well as due to lost hope resulting from having a criminal record (37% of Maori prison inmates have a drug offence on their record, around 60% of which was associated with cannabis). Add to that the $180 million a year spent on the enforcement of cannabis prohibition via policing costs, and you see the war against cannabis is a dismal economic failure.

4. Equity of choice

Cannabis was deemed by the "Drug harms in the UK: a multi-criteria decision analysis" published in the Lancet to be less harmful than alcohol and tobacco: Alcohol is a destructive drug for many. By prohibiting cannabis and allowing alcohol, we are allowing individuals to consume products that are at least as harmful as cannabis.

5. Legalisation need not increase use

The legalisation of cannabis in Colorado has not led to an increase in use among young people above the small increase that occurred with the introduction of medical cannabis. Combine this with the results from Portugal and it appears we are witnessing the rebuttal of the mythology that more liberal drug laws would open the gates of addiction hell. As with the Opportunities Party cannabis policy, in both cases the money that would otherwise go into enforcement or into the criminal underground has gone into rehabilitation and education programmes.

6. Decrease in hard drug use

American states with robust medicinal cannabis policies or full legalisation have seen a decrease in hard drug use. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Centre found that opioid overdose deaths decreased by nearly 25 percent in a state following the passage of medical cannabis laws. A recently published study by the RAND Corporation also found a decrease in opioid addiction and overdoses in states with medical or legal cannabis. As a country with a meth epidemic, New Zealand would be intelligent to take notice of these results coming out of Portugal and the USA.

7. Public will

Anyone that believes democracy should reflect the public-will must be disappointed that something most Kiwis want is being neglected by both main political parties during this Election. The National Drug Foundation conducted a poll in 2016 and found that 65% of Kiwis wanted cannabis fully legal or decriminalised. One should not be surprised that out of the 12000-people surveyed on Newshub, The Opportunities Party found 92 percent approval for their cannabis policy.

8. Business Opportunities

There are amazing business opportunities to be had. Even a conservative Israeli government is quickly turning its attention to this, and changed its law so that it can export cannabis plant extract to foreign countries. Israeli researchers believe the rapidly burgeoning new global market in medical cannabis will soon be worth almost $20bn annually by 2020 in the US alone. Their aim is not simply to take part in a hugely lucrative market, but to transform the medical cannabis industry into a serious endeavour of pharmaceutical research, producing new strains and drugs to alleviate the symptoms of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, insomnia and other conditions. Already, the “green rush” has seen 500 companies apply to exploit cannabis products since the Israeli government approved legislation allowing natural cannabis cultivation, manufacture and export. This policy accompanies Israel’s recent decriminalisation of cannabis use. “This is an important step toward implementing this new policy, which will emphasize the importance of education instead of criminalization,” said Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.

9. Quality Control

By legalising cannabis, we can enforce THC and CBD levels and limits. In Canada, regulation demands that suppliers must test and submit THC levels and demonstrate their products contain no dangerous additives. Users get consistency of product, and know what they are taking. Speaking of Canada’s recent legalisation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted that the Canadian government will control cannabis and thereby make it less dangerous for young users: drug dealers don’t ask for ID, but offer hard drugs and provide inconsistent and dangerous products.

10. Safer use

Legalisation allows safer forms of use, such as vaporisers and edibles. This is contrasted with unregulated markets which involve people smoking it from a can or using knives to spot on the oven. Once again, this reflects the harm reduction approach espoused by our National Drug Policy: an idea that Labour and National like in principle, but are unwilling to implement in practice.

Guest blog written by Daniel Hirst

Former Senior Policy Analyst and PhD Candidate at the University of Otago (Harm Reduction and International Drug Policy)

@dfrancishirst