Would it be wiser to only decriminalise and not legalise cannabis?
Not necessarily, and it depends on what you mean by decriminalisation. The Chief Science Advisor's expert panel observed that New Zealand has drifted towards a “soft decriminalisation” over the past decade or more and there are fewer cannabis prosecutions now. It also noted that glaring inequities remain in who gets arrested, prosecuted and convicted. And that even after an amendment last year to the Misuse of Drugs Act intended to guide police discretion towards health-based responses: “Discriminatory policing and justice outcomes result from the uneven application of cannabis laws, especially for Māori.”
The main problem with decriminalisation-only approaches is that they leave supply of cannabis up to the black market, removing the harm of criminalisation for some people, but imposing no control on the safety or potency of cannabis or on who can access it. The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill would require product-testing, apply potency limits and impose a strict R20 age limit. It would also impose a sales levy on cannabis which would be ring-fenced for drug education and treatment. That levy on sales will also make it easier for our health services to respond when people do have problems with cannabis.
The Public Health Association of New Zealand is strongly advocating for a “Yes” vote, saying: “While there are potential harms associated with cannabis use, prohibition is not effective at preventing these and in some cases is directly increasing harm and inequities. The proposed bill reallocates resources away from prohibition and towards health services, incorporating ‘demand reduction’ and ‘harm reduction’ approaches. This will encourage help-seeking and increase treatment access for those who are experiencing cannabis-related harm, while removing criminal penalty for those who recreationally use cannabis.”
The PHA’s stance reflects the repeated finding of the 2018 Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction that criminalisation makes the work of helping people harder.