The Real Deal Cannabis Reform
TOP’s approach to cannabis law reform is about reducing the total harm caused by cannabis.
Prohibition has been about as effective as our blasphemy laws; with two out of five Kiwis having consumed cannabis in their lifetime. Goddamn it that’s a lot! One in nine have used it in the past year and for 15-24 year olds it is one in four. Do we really want to risk one in four of our promising youngest citizens ending up in jail?
The current approach to cannabis – dealing with people through the police and courts – causes more harm than smoking cannabis does. Prohibition forces people to interact with criminals, putting ordinary New Zealanders at risk and handing money to gangs. We repeat, prohibition is a failure.
Currently, the law doesn’t treat all drugs consistently. Some drugs like alcohol cause more harm than cannabis does, yet they are legal and lightly regulated.
Cannabis is a health issue and should be dealt with as such. Heavy users should receive help for their addiction and mental health issues. The medical evidence shows that smoking before the brain is fully matured (around the age of 25) should also be discouraged as it raises risks to brain development.
Recent experience from Colorado (where cannabis is fully legalised) shows that crime and driving offences have dropped and underage use is stable or falling. Meanwhile the change has generated money that can be spent on public services.
The downside to the Colorado experience is that they opted for a full commercial model which has led to a small increase in total usage (as competition has caused the price to almost halve). TOP’s proposal will include stricter regulation to overcome this problem and improve on the American experience. This is consistent with our prerogative to reduce overall harm.
Making cannabis legal is projected to free up $180m in police resources, which can be reinvested to reduce crime, and as well generate at least $150m in revenue. That buys a lot of drug education and rehabilitation.
The Opportunities Party will:
- License suppliers and manufacturers to encourage small scale regional supply, and regulate the potency of supply.
- Use a tax (based on THC potency) and minimum price to ensure the price doesn’t fall as it did in Colorado.
- Allow retail sales only through Cannabis Licensing Trusts (local charities) or a Government online store. It will not be sold in the same outlets as alcohol.
- Ensure the placement of retail outlets (if any) will be subject to local authority regulation.
- Use revenue generated by the tax and profits of the Trusts (estimated at $150m) for education, after school projects for youth, treatment of addiction for all drugs and regulation to control demand.
- Allow home growing of up to 2 plants.
- Set the legal age of purchase & use at 20 and ensure education campaigns discourage use until 25.
Hemp can effectively be considered a low THC strain of the cannabis plant. It has long been cultivated for use in commercial and industrial applications such as construction materials, rope, clothing, oil, and food. Current laws in New Zealand have recently been reviewed and products made from hemp seeds are now deemed safe for human consumption by the Ministry of Health. This is viewed as a small concession due to the other potentially useful components of the hemp plant. The main issues with commercialising hemp is its close relationship to other forms of cannabis, namely those that have high levels of THC, and that CBD (which is present in hemp) is still regulated as a controlled drug by the Ministry of Health.
We expect the legalisation of cannabis will allow for these regulations around hemp to be relaxed so that a commercial hemp market may prosper.
TOP takeaway: We expect the legalisation of cannabis will allow for these regulations around hemp to be relaxed so that a commercial hemp market may prosper.
There is clear evidence from controlled laboratory trials that cannabis use reduces psychomotor performance, increasing the overall risk of accidents particularly while driving. This has been a key issue raised in international consultation over cannabis reform. However, due to the current prevalence of cannabis, impaired driving is not a new challenge. It is a criminal offence that exists today and is a challenge that must continue to be addressed, irrespective of how or when cannabis is legalised. The current system that is used by police is robust, and the best available measure until testing science is developed further[i]. Therefore, in terms of policy the policing of this issue should not significantly change.
Debate continues about the ideal (from a policy perspective) blood and/or saliva levels to indicate marijuana intoxication while driving. However a saliva test cannot show impairment only the presence of a drug, which does not necessarily imply impairment. Innovations are in development in various jurisdictions in the United States and abroad, including defined levels for impaired driving and how these can be analysed by saliva sampling, but as mentioned, these are not yet considered robust.[ii] In comparison, the appropriate levels deemed safe to drive for alcohol took years to develop, it is hoped that as discussions about cannabis become more common, and its legal status changes, this testing can be developed at a much faster rate.
TOP advocates continuing the current system. Drivers that have given reason to be considered under the influence, such as through driving erratically, will be given a roadside impairment test, and if failed will be blood tested. Evidence shows that the overwhelming majority – 95 percent of those who were asked for a blood specimen – tested positive for drugs, indicating police are judging driver behaviour well and not over-referring drivers.[iii]
TOP Takeaway: Drug driving is already an issue, as long as usage rates do not significantly increase we would not expect to see an increase in drug driving. The current system used by police is seen as best practice.
The prevalence of cannabis and its impact on the workforce, like drug driving, is already a common, and divisive issue. Under the current system drug testing is legal for those who work in a safety critical environment, however it must be part of the employee's condition of appointment. Drug testing measures currently are technically limited and often used as a punitive tool; as with driving, current drug tests do not screen for impairment; they only indicate past use, which is a major limitation. This is especially significant as cannabis has the longest detection period for urine based drug tests, which can show the presence of cannabis long after the adverse effects have gone (up to a week for single use, while habitual use lasts for several months). [i]
Testing raises two main issues:
- Gaming the system through users predicting when they will be tested, or changing their drug use to undetectable substances; and
- Users testing positive and being punished when the adverse effects are no longer present.
For these reasons, TOP advocates safety-critical workplace testing only in conjunction with observing people for impairment. Non-safety critical testing is not necessary – it is much better just to observe for impairment and respond with constructive support where a problem is identified. Research on random workplace drug testing found the chance of being detected did not change the number of people involved in incidents due to impairment from alcohol or drugs, and that testing alone is ineffective at improving health and safety.[ii] Testing on workers drug use does impact the amount of users found, but does not show a change in the number of injuries in the workplace. Therefore it can be concluded that the testing only impacted drug use that was not causing impairment in the workplace.[iii]
Air New Zealand is leading the way on this issue with drug testing considered only a very small component of a comprehensive workplace policy. Their focus has been on building a safe culture promoting peer responsibility. In their sector, self-reports and help-seeking are promoted and common.
TOP Takeaway: Again, workplace testing is already an issue. We advocate safety-critical workplace testing only in conjunction with observed impairment, as per drug driving. That way people with residual cannabis in their system who are not impaired are not unfairly punished.
Apart from the commercial production, distribution and retail supply chain, personal cultivation provides a potential alternative means for consumers to access cannabis.
Personal cultivation is a very emotive issue for many people. Notable arguments for its prohibition revolve around the health and safety risks it can pose, the ease that it can be directed towards illicit markets and the potential exposure to children. There are also sound arguments for allowing it, outlining that growing can be done safely and responsibly.
Considered one of the most notable issues with personal cultivation is experience with current illegal large scale operations. The risks include problems with:
- Mould, when large-scale growing occurs in buildings not designed or properly equipped to do so;
- Improper electrical installation and associated fire hazards;
- Unchecked use of pesticides and fertilizers; and
- Break-ins and thefts.
These outcomes all result in dangers to neighbouring residences and first responders. Following legalisation the demand for illicitly produced cannabis should significantly decline, which in turn will reduce the number of large, commercial-scale illicit growing operations and the risks they pose to public health and safety. [i]
There are a number of examples of countries and states who have allowed users to grow their own cannabis and therefore we have considerable experience to draw on. It seems overall the effects of allowing personal production are small.[ii] A regular comparison is with the current system for home brewing alcohol and it is a common argument that those who choose to cultivate will largely be law-abiding adults who grow a limited number of plants in a safe and responsible manner for their personal use. Wine-making, home brewing of beer and curing personally grown tobacco is undertaken primarily by advocates and connoisseurs in the post-prohibition era.[iii]
One limitation of grow-your-own is that it suffers from a feast-or famine issue. If you are going to grow any at all, it is hard not to grow too much for one person. An experienced grower can produce 300 to 400 g from one large plant, which is a year’s supply for even daily users.[iv]
With all this considered and a clear understanding of the risks associated with personal cultivation, the following safeguards would create a reasonable framework for enabling small-scale cultivation of cannabis for personal use:
- Set clear limits on the scale of cultivation permitted (maximum of two plants per person), with a maximum height limit (100 cm);
- Prohibit unlicensed sale (although some degree of sharing among friends and relatives is inevitable);
- Prohibit the manufacture of concentrates in homes using volatile solvents and chemicals;
- Establish guidelines to ensure cultivation is in spaces not visible or accessible to children;
- Regulate the market to enable a legal source for starting materials (e.g., seeds, seedlings, plant cuttings).
TOP Takeaway: we support allowing personal cultivation of two plants per person under strict conditions.
Popular in the 1970s/80s was the hypothesis that cannabis was a so called gateway drug. There was great concern that trying cannabis could be a gateway that caused users to go seek stronger and stronger highs. Those fears arose from the combination of conditional probabilities (children who use cannabis are much more likely to progress to harder drugs) and sequential order (cannabis usually predates use of harder drugs). But those facts together do not imply causality.
Over the years the validity and relevance of this hypothesis have been challenged[i]. There is now evidence[ii] that suggests that complex interactions among various individual/ predisposing factors and environmental factors (e.g., peer-pressure, family influence, drug availability, opportunities for drug use) drive drug seeking, drug use/abuse, and drug addiction, and these interactions are not necessarily tied to cannabis use alone. It could therefore be suggested that there is a causal path from greater cannabis use to use of hard drugs that is social or psychological, however there is no significant evidence that suggests there is a biochemical link[iii]. The social aspect may simply exist because cannabis is illegal, which forces people to engage with criminals in order to procure cannabis.
The only drug with strong evidence for the gateway drug theory is nicotine, and that is because people sometimes use cannabis and cigarettes together. In fact, instead of the gateway effect, the evidence is stronger that cannabis can reduce the intake of other drugs.
TOP takeaway: There is no significant evidence to suggest that smoking cannabis leads to other drugs. It is suggested that the illicit status of cannabis has had more effect of exposing users, especially young people, to harder drugs.
Substitution can be categorised as the choice to use one drug (legal or illicit) instead of another due to issues such as:
- perceived safety;
- level of addiction potential;
- effectiveness in relieving symptoms; and
- access and level of acceptance.
The substitution of one psychoactive substance for another with the goal of reducing negative outcomes can come under the banner of harm reduction. Studies have shown that medical cannabis patients have been engaging in substitution by using cannabis as an alternative to alcohol, prescription, and illicit drugs. [i]
Some studies have found that medical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates [ii]. Overall there is a data hint of substitution for opiates. There is little conclusive consensus regarding the direction that effects have on alcohol, but experience in the United States should soon give more data on this[iii].
Taking all these factors into account there are potentially promising signs regarding the substitution effect that cannabis has on the use of some drugs, however the data is far from definitive. Worthy of note is a research report from the Ministry of Health showing the estimated personal harm by drug group. We are all increasingly aware of the damage that methamphetamine does to society[iv]. To put a dollar value on it this report states this harm at $184,200 per dependant user of Amphetamine-type stimulants annually. Therefore any anecdotal evidence that can suggest cannabis may reduce the harm caused by meth is worthwhile investigating further.
The evidence is insufficient to say definitively the effect that cannabis has on other drugs however early signs suggest it can reduce the intake especially of opiates.
The medicinal properties of cannabis, cannabis and THC remain disputed, partly because their legal status has prevented them from being subject to rigorous clinical analysis.
As many stakeholders appreciate, the formal clinical evidence base is incomplete, however there is agreement that many individuals suffering from a variety of serious medical conditions report therapeutic benefits from both THC and CBD[i]. Scientific data indicate the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs, primarily THC, for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation.
Although there are many medical-cannabis dispensaries in places such as North America that distribute cannabis products and derivatives with varying levels of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids, these particular products have not been the subject of clinical trials. The anecdotal evidence however about high-CBD extracts reducing seizures—especially among children—has been convincing and likely explains why more than ten states in the USA enacted CBD laws in 2014.[ii]
Studies such as those run by the Cochrane Collaboration provide what are arguably the most rigorous assessments of the evidence for medical applications of cannabis and the chemicals it contains. These studies found that few available trials meet their methodological standards for inclusion and that the available evidence is insufficient to establish medical benefits.
This lack of evidence hasn’t stopped other political parties such as Labour and the Greens supporting legalising cannabis for medicinal use. This position has no basis in the evidence, but appears to be a way of pandering to the demand for liberalising cannabis laws without taking the political risk of backing full legalisation. As usual it appears Establishment Parties cherry pick the evidence to suit their polling.
The current lack of strong evidence reflects the enormous obstacles of doing cannabis research. Given the proliferation of medical-cannabis systems it is apparent that more and better clinical trials are needed. Helpfully as the stigma surrounding cannabis is slowly removed and more countries are looking at forms of regulation these studies should become more frequent and robust.
TOP Takeaway: Anecdotally, many individuals suffering from a variety of serious medical conditions derive therapeutic benefits from both THC and CBD, however the available evidence is insufficient to establish medical benefits.
[i] op cit Canadian Task Force on Cannabis Legislation
We understand that this may be slightly counterintuitive however the evidence shows that criminalisation of cannabis has had no significant statistical impact on reducing use, nor is there any evidence that decriminalisation increases use.    Under a fully legalised and commercial market (there are only a small number of examples where this is the case, one being Colorado) evidence suggest that legalisation has decreased use of cannabis amongst youth, presumably thanks to increased education. For adults there has been a small increase of cannabis use and related outcomes, although this seems to be driven by a falling price as growers scale up production.  It is important to note that TOP’s policy has much stronger regulation and price control than these full commercial models.
Based on this information we can say that the reason the usage rates should not change is because cannabis is so prevalent in society that those who choose to use it have done so regardless of its legal status and will continue to do so.
TOP Takeaway: Cannabis use is prevalent in society and most of those that choose to use it have done so regardless of its legal status.
While it is legal if you are a parent or guardian to supply alcohol to your kids we do not advocate this for cannabis. It will remain an illegal, yet decriminalised offence. To reduce overall harm all efforts should be made to not smoke around children. Second-hand smoke is also a problem, which is obviously not an issue with alcohol.
Here’s the Greens policy:
Broadly TOP and the Greens share the same goal of reducing harm from the use of drugs – whether it be alcohol, cannabis, smoking or other more damaging substaces.
However, this is what is missing from the Greens policy (which is in italics below) on cannabis:
- Assess evidence from overseas jurisdictions that have legal cannabis markets to determine the best model for New Zealand.
TOP has done this and here it is. What are we waiting for?
- While waiting for broader law change for cannabis, remove penalties for any person with a terminal illness, chronic or debilitating condition to cultivate, possess or use cannabis and/or cannabis products for therapeutic purposes, with the support of a registered medical practitioner.
Medicinal use is a non-issue once the regulated legalisation that The Opportunities Party’s research-informed policy is implemented as it allows those that wish, to consume cannabis without the stigma that prohibition brings.
- Accelerate the process by which medical cannabis products are licensed for use.
- Lower barriers for manufacturers to submit new cannabis products for funding applications to PHARMAC.
There is actually very little robust evidence for the medical benefits of cannabis, largely because it has been illegal so hasn’t been studied in a rigorous way. There is anecdotal evidence of therapeutic benefits, which suggests more studies should be done. But in the short term it is highly unlikely that cannabis products would be accepted by PHARMAC for funding. The question of medical use is therefore a red herring – we should get on with creating a legalised market (which there is evidence for) while further studies take place on the medicinal side. It is difficult to see why political parties are pushing medicinal use of cannabis when there is very poor evidence for it.
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