By Sam Smith

A medicinal cannabis bill has just passed its third reading in the New Zealand parliament. But is it time to also look at recreational use in the country?

New Zealand is gearing up to decide the future of cannabis law in the country. Currently, it is illegal to possess, supply or manufacture cannabis in New Zealand, however, a referendum on cannabis law is on the cards, with the coalition government planning on having a referendum at, or by the 2020 election.

Earlier this year, Canada legalised recreational cannabis use, and it is also legal in nine US states at the federal level. A New Zealand Drug Foundation poll in 2018 showed that 89% of respondents supported legalising or decriminalising cannabis for medicinal purposes, while 67% favoured a change for recreational purposes.

Questions, however, do remain over the process a law change would require, what a law change would involve, as well as the pros and cons of legalising or decriminalising cannabis in New Zealand.

Decriminalising or Legalising?

The government will need to decide the scope of any referendum and whether legalisation or decriminalisation is on the cards. Decriminalisation refers to a legal situation where people are permitted to have cannabis on their person without being prosecuted, however, it would still be a criminal offence to sell or supply it. On the other hand, with legalisation, you would have a situation where there would be no legal penalties attached to users, sellers or buyers, although the market would be regulated much like alcohol.

Otago University Associate Professor Joseph Boden says the government needs to decide what form a law change would take and whether it would be to legalize or decriminalise the drug. “They could follow a heavily restricted market like the sort which has been undertaken in Canada, or a free market approach like some of the US states, Colorado for example.”

Massey University Associate Professor Chris Wilkins agrees. “I think it is an important issue to think about. Decriminalisation would change how people come into contact with police, they would get fines instead of being arrested or prosecuted. Legalisation would require quite a lot of market regulation, so regulation of the production and sale of cannabis.”

Pros of a law change

With any proposed law change there are always pros and cons and that is no different with cannabis law reform. In terms of some of the pros of legalising or decriminalising cannabis, Joseph Boden says authorities can start treating cannabis use as a legitimate medical issue, something which he says remains difficult under a regime where the drug remains illegal.

“You are able to stop jailing people because putting people in prison if they are simply cannabis users is really not the sort of thing people should be going to jail for and we certainly have got a prison overpopulation issue as it is. It also takes money out of the hands of gangs and others who are dealing it, certainly the legalisation, not so much decriminalisation, and transfers that income into money that can be taxed.”

For Chris Wilkins, moving from an illegal to a legal regime would make a significant impact from a criminal perspective. “It is really dependent on what is the regulation. With decriminalisation, the main benefit is that you don’t prosecute anyone anymore so that means people don’t end up with a criminal conviction for cannabis use. That is quite important because once you have got a conviction it affects your life in a lot of ways.”

Wilkins, like Boden, also suggests there is money to be made from a law change. “Some of the advantages of legalisation is that there is an opportunity to earn tax from a legal market in terms of the sale of that commodity. You can also regulate and bring in public health controls for things like production so there would also be an opportunity for the market to develop safer products.”

The windfall for Colorado since they legalised cannabis in 2012 has been enormous. Just in the last year they collected over $US244 million dollars in tax from cannabis sales, while in 2017, sales for recreational and medicinal cannabis came in at US$1.56 billion. A similar trend has been seen in California who legalised the drug for recreational use in 2016.

Cons of a law change

However, there are also risks associated with any law change, especially around issues associated with health costs and dependency. Although cannabis is relatively non-toxic and there is no known lethal dose, there is still harm that comes from overusing and both Joseph Boden and Chris Wilkins agree that a law change could bring with it some issues.

Joseph Boden says young people could be more at risk if the drug is made legal. “Amotivational syndrome is heavier in younger users who tend to have trouble finishing their education or finding steady employment or avoiding welfare dependence and that sort of thing. So an important part of a legalization framework would be keeping it out of the hands of young people as much as possible.”

Chris Wilkins says dependency is an issue that could come into play. “In terms of legalisation, it is increasing use and increasing dependent use which would cause harm both to users and their families and wider society. Somewhere around a third of regular users of cannabis suffer from some kind of dependency problem. The heaviest health cost comes when people start using at a very young age. So early onset use of cannabis is associated with things like low education achievement, unemployment, social welfare dependency.”

Current data on cannabis dependency rates in New Zealand suggest around ten to eleven percent of people overuse the drug or use regularly. This includes an Otago University study co-authored by Boden and a 2015 Ministry of Health NZ health survey. Official statistics from the University of Auckland’s Alcohol and Public Health Research Unit also showed that one in sixth New Zealanders define themselves as regular users of the drug.

What has happened overseas?

Moving from an illegal to a legal regime around cannabis use is a relatively new phenomenon globally with Canada only just legalising recreational use this year and some US states like Colorado at the federal level in the last few years.

Given this short time frame, Joseph Boden says it remains unclear as to what effect legalisation has had and what this could mean for New Zealand. “This is a pretty new thing in the last few years and we really don’t have that good data on it yet,” Boden says. “Although it looks like there hasn’t been a situation where you have got lots of people using cannabis a lot more, the data doesn’t seem to be saying that.”

Chris Wilkins agrees and says it is very early days to say how these legal regimes are working out. “We are literally into year three of a legal regime and that is important to keep in mind. The industry takes a while to develop and also some of the issues related to use take a while to permeate through, so things like dependency, impact’s on other drug use, that all takes time before it takes effect.”

The small amount of data that has been collected in the US suggests that legalisation in states like Colorado have not had a significant affect on addiction rates. State-level numbers from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that little more than nine percent of Colorado teens used cannabis monthly in 2015 and 2016, a statistically significant drop from the prior period. That’s also the lowest rate of monthly cannabis use in the state since 2007 and 2008. However, states where cannabis is legal or decriminalized do have a slightly higher rate of use than states where it isn’t.

Should a law change happen in New Zealand?

Despite the lack of data yet on changes overseas, both Joseph Boden and Chris Wilkins say that a law change needs to happen in New Zealand. Boden says it is clear the law doesn’t work and that it needs to be changed in a cautious manner. “I would be more in favour of legalization but in a very restricted fashion. I don’t want to see the sort of free-market slather that we have with alcohol where you can get it anywhere, anytime. I would like to see it set at a higher purchase stage so maybe 20 years, very restricted trading hours, restrictions around advertising, those sorts of things that we know in the substance use control literature work to reduce demand and consumption.”

Chris Wilkins is also cautious about a law change but rules out continuing with the law as it is. “I think a lot of different options are viable depending on what your objectives are. One option is not going to meet all the different objectives you might have. But I am cautiously in favour of some reform. Of the options there are, the only two that I would personally rule out would be continuing with prohibition and criminal penalties or a commercial market like alcohol. So something in between those two would be ideal.”

Joseph Boden is an Associate Professor in Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago. He is an expert in substance abuse. 

Chris Wilkins is an Associate Professor and leader of the drug research team at SHORE Research Centre, Massey University.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author(s) views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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