Time to end cannabis prohibition
The current high levels of use and the level of black market activity indicate that the current prohibition regime is not effective in limiting cannabis use. Prohibition results in high conviction rates for a relatively minor offence, inhibiting people’s education, travel and employment opportunities. Prohibition makes targeting education, prevention, harm minimisation and treatment measures difficult because users fear prosecution. It also facilitates the black market and potentially exposes cannabis users to harder drugs.
So said the Health Select Committee’s report on the inquiry into the legal status of cannabis, in August 2003.
Whatever your take on the health effects of cannabis – and we all have our opinions – it is clear that prohibition has not worked, and a drugs policy re-think is in order.
If the aim of prohibition has been to prevent use, it has failed spectacularly. Despite having the highest cannabis arrest rate in the world, more New Zealanders use cannabis now than ever before. Half of New Zealanders are criminalised by this law. Eighty percent of 21-year-olds have tried cannabis. How many should be arrested before prohibition is judged a success?
Enforcement of cannabis prohibition by the police, courts and prisons cost taxpayers $56 million in 2000. While more than twenty million dollars is spent every year chasing ordinary Kiwis for small amounts of cannabis, treatment services and effective education are struggling or, in places, don’t exist. Furthermore, fear of arrest is the biggest barrier to those seeking help.
Though use is widespread in New Zealand, enforcement of drug laws impacts much harder on Maori, who are five times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than non-Maori.
The present law is a form of institutional racism. Its enforcement alienates police from society and causes enormous harm to the lives, careers and families of more than ten thousand people arrested every year.
Research confirms that drug laws have little effect, if any, on drug use rates, but they do increase or decrease the harms associated with use. Countries that have reformed their laws have not experienced increased use, but have spent millions of dollars less on law enforcement than countries where prohibition remains.
The Dutch, who have allowed the sale of cannabis to adults since 1976, have one-third the per capita usage of New Zealand. In the United Kingdom, teen cannabis use dropped after it was made a non-arrestable offence.
There is no difference in use between those Australian states who have decriminalised cannabis and those that continue to arrest users. The United States also shows no difference between the ten states – representing half the population – who decriminalised in the 1970s and those that did not. Recent analysis of cities in California, Colorado, Washington State and Oregon showed there was no influence of medical cannabis laws on the extent of illegal cannabis use. The researchers said that the “use of the drug by those already sick might ‘de-glamorise’ it and thereby do little to encourage use among others”.
The most commonly voiced concern about ending prohibition centres around the protection of children. However, problems in our schools or communities are made worse under current law, not better. Prohibition promotes a ‘forbidden fruit’ mentality, glamorising cannabis as a token of rebellion. Open and honest communication is made more difficult in an environment of guilt and persecution. The untaxed cannabis economy is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and controlled by whoever is prepared to break the law. Violence and intimidation rule the market, just as was the case under alcohol prohibition in 1930s America.
So what should be done about it?
If we are genuinely committed to harm minimisation, we should immediately repeal cannabis prohibition and investigate the failure of current drugs policy.
Let’s control the way cannabis is used and sold through appropriate regulations such as age limits, health warnings, dosage and packaging controls, marketing restrictions and so forth.
Let’s use cannabis excise taxes to provide effective education about drugs so that people can make responsible and informed choices, and fully fund treatment services for those who need them. Let’s provide enough resources to research the effect of any law changes.
Modern research shows cannabis is an effective and safe medicine for many conditions including cancer, HIV wasting syndrome, glaucoma, chronic pain, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, paraplegia and epilepsy. Let’s allow doctors and patients to decide what treatment is best for them, not politicians or police.
Given the spectacular failure of the current law, the burden of proof should be on prohibitionists to show why we should persist with this expensive and destructive mistake.
- Chris Fowlie is President of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in New Zealand.