I’m going to start with the obvious: the best approach to drug law reform will be one that most effectively minimises harm.
The approach we take should be one that acknowledges the scientific evidence showing cannabis use can be associated with significant negative impacts including increased risk of psychotic symptoms, major depression, motor vehicle accidents, tobacco smoking, other illegal drug use, and dependence on welfare. It should also factor in: the harms criminal convictions can have on users’ employment, relationships, and ability to travel; the harms associated with having users interact with an illegal drug market; and the loss of a considerable amount of tax revenue for the state - revenue that could in part be used to fund services for people with cannabis-related health and psychosocial issues.
It’s easy to get lost in the green haze of conflicting opinions on this issue. The complexity of drug law reform (and its implementation) is in part why political inertia has been such an ongoing problem. And although updating our drug laws is very much needed, jumping straight into legalisation involves higher risk without necessarily higher return. Decriminalising personal cannabis use is a much more sensible place to start.
On its own, decriminalisation isn’t a magic bullet - the celebrated outcomes of Portugal’s decision to decriminalise all drugs in 2001 after a grim decade facing a horrific opioid epidemic are likely due to numerous factors. Major investments in improving access to addiction and recovery services, housing, education, employment… these are commitments New Zealand must also be prepared to make in order for decriminalisation or legalisation to translate into the most optimal outcomes. Even Dr. João Goulão, the mastermind behind Portugal’s drug policy, has stated “It’s very difficult to identify a causal link between decriminalization by itself and the positive tendencies we’ve seen…It’s a total package. The biggest effect has been to allow the stigma of drug addiction to fall, to let people speak clearly and to pursue professional help without fear.”
But there are evidence-based reasons why decriminalisation is a step we should consider. Laws prohibiting cannabis do not seem to decrease its use. Our laws are discriminately applied to disadvantage Māori more than other ethnic groups. Decriminalisation can be cost-effective as less money is spent on the legal system and more in healthcare.
Earlier this year, The New Zealand Medical Journal ran an editorial titled Cannabis law and cannabis-related harm by Research Associate Professor Dr. Joseph Boden and the late Emeritus Professor David Fergusson of the University of Otago’s Department of Psychological Medicine. In this editorial, the authors proposed moving towards liberalisation of cannabis laws by initially beginning with a first-stage decriminalisation process. This level-headed, step-wise approach would allow for robust evaluation of the prevalence of cannabis use and related harms following decriminalisation, provide evidence supporting the further liberalisation of drug laws, and give us time to act on better information as more data on the costs and benefits of cannabis legalisation in other countries becomes available.
It can be easy to criticise a more cautious approach to drug law reform. We like to think radical, bold moves are a sign of visionary leadership. However, as a medical student, I’ve seen more than enough of the harms of alcohol and tobacco - two legalised drugs - in our hospitals and GP practices every day for the last five years; I’m in no rush to support rapidly legalising another. Legal reform can come with unpredictable effects, and the risks of poor planning involve human lives. So, in this case, perhaps wading into the water with decriminalisation is better than diving headfirst into the deep.
Read/listen to more about the issue:
Boden, J. M., & Fergusson, D. M. (2019). Cannabis law and cannabis-related harm.The New Zealand Medical Journal (Online), 132(1488), 7-10.Support Villainesse