OPINION: In a few weeks, Parliament is almost certain to approve legal medicinal cannabis. It’s a controversial topic, but medicinal cannabis is a straightforward matter compared to legalising cannabis more generally.
The Government’s promised referendum must be held by 2020 on legalising adult personal use of cannabis. Should debate be limited to allowing adults to grow and use cannabis, but not to sell it?
Or should New Zealand take this opportunity to consider full legalisation of cannabis, following the example of Canada last month?
The trend is clear: in the United States, cannabis is illegal under federal law, but this month Michigan became the ninth state to fully legalise it. In addition, Vermont allows legal possession.
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For New Zealand to allow possession but not sales (like Vermont) would be a substantial reform. It would put us ahead of every Australian state and territory on the law reform spectrum.
Australian jurisdictions vary widely in their cannabis laws, from Queensland (which imposes up to 15 years’ imprisonment for even minor possession) to South Australia, ACT and the Northern Territory, which have decriminalised cannabis but still impose fines for possession of small amounts.
Elsewhere in the world, cannabis is still mostly illegal, though prohibition laws are often not enforced. It has been legally decriminalised in 31 countries (mostly in Europe and South America); Norway and Israel are currently decriminalising.
So, what are the law reform options?
* No change: Possession of any cannabis is illegal with a maximum three months in jail or a $500 fine; cultivation also illegal – up to seven years in jail. Sale or supply: eight years’ jail (cannabis oil, 14 years).
* Legalising personal adult use: Perhaps including legal growing for personal use. This was the referendum option promised by Government.
* Legal growers and legal sellers: Controlled by a licensing system (also described as a “regulated market”). Examples are the R18 sales allowed for tobacco products and alcohol.
The main advantage of full legalisation is that cannabis supply would be controlled and regulated. With about 400,000 Kiwis using cannabis in any one year, most users are currently supplied by the illegal (criminal) market. Legal home-growing might make a dent in the illegal market, but could never replace it.
Until the supply of cannabis is made legal and controlled, we not only leave it in criminal hands, we deny ourselves the opportunity of taking our local expertise in this area to the world: marketing our superior, well-tested product to tourists and eventually to the legal world markets that are opening up. New Zealand wine is highly regarded worldwide, and our burgeoning craft-beer industry shows the potential for developing a high-quality, local cannabis industry in future – if we use our imagination.
Maybe the public will not be ready to seize this chance, even if offered it in two years’ time. We should keep the plan to vote on personal adult use, in 2019 or 2020: this change is important and overdue.
But how about using the referendum to explore further? A debate on legalising cannabis sales would open up many possibilities: licensed coffee shops, as in the Netherlands, or cannabis social clubs, as in Spain and Uruguay.
A bonus could be that such a debate will help society better understand how to deal with other, deadlier, drug issues: synthetics, methamphetamine (P) and the like.
Just add a second question to the referendum, to allow legal growers and legal sales. We are going to spend the money anyway, so let’s do this right.
New Zealand could be third or fourth in the world to legalise cannabis, after Uruguay, Canada and Mexico (as promised by its new president). Why not lead the world, rather than follow?
* Phil Saxby is former president of NORML NZ, and Wellington organiser of the recent cannabis referendum conference.
Full story is available here.