Why decriminalisation without regulation is stupid

Finally we are getting some sensible discussion around the decriminalisation of cannabis.

It is going to happen, and inside 10 years…maybe sooner, so it is incumbent on people to pull their heads out of the sand and to start looking at a sensible decriminalisation regime.

Radio NZ has put together an analysis and it is very good.

New Zealand has a number of models to examine if the government seriously considers decriminalising marijuana.

There’s been an explosion in the number of countries and states liberalising its use over the past two decades – some have legalised it entirely, while others have decriminalised it only for medicinal use.

Amsterdam has its infamous coffee shops, which take advantage of a policy of tolerance, Portugal has changed possession to an administrative as opposed to a criminal offence, and in the US four states – Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska – have legalised cannabis, but certain restrictions remain in place.

But what model works best, what impact has decriminalisation had elsewhere, and what would work here?

The question became prominent this week after Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne said he was not sure New Zealand’s law was efficient, and he was considering a more tolerant approach.

Police Association president Greg O’Connor then came out and described the US state of Colorado as a ‘model’ given it had tackled both use and supply. He distinguished this from the Netherlands which he said had done nothing to regulate drug dealers.

Mr O’Connor wouldn’t say whether or not he supported the adoption of a Colorado-style approach in New Zealand.

I have written about Portugal’s drug laws before, and of course covered the legalisation debate in the US. But what are the differences in models?

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell says Colorado’s model is based on a free-market and commercialisation logic, where supply was more controlled, and it was a more direct way of getting rid of the black market.

The Netherlands’ approach was more hybrid, with police turning a blind eye to criminal activity behind the scenes.

“The way it is described, it is ok if cannabis goes out the front door but there is still a big question mark on how it gets in the back door.

“The supply is fundamentally still in the hands of the criminals” he says.

You have to legitimise supply. Colorado’s model does that. The criminal gangs had their market destroyed overnight. People much prefer to buy their weed at a dispensary than a tinnie house. Furthermore there is quality control…criminals don’t care about quality.

Colorado decriminalised medical marijuana in 2001 and voted to legalise the drug all together in 2013. The first retail shops opened in January 2014. While the drug is legal, some restrictions remain in place.

Colorado’s law states:

  • You have to be older than 21 to buy, use or possess marijuana
  • You can only buy it from licensed retailers, who are the only people who can legally sell it
  • You can have up to one ounce of marijuana, and can give one ounce to someone, but can’t sell it
  • You can grow up to six plants
  • You cannot use it in a public place or on federal land, such as a national park
  • Marijuana sold from retailers has to be sealed and labelled

Given the law change in Colorado is relatively recent, the true effect is yet to be seen. Not only that, but official figures are contradictory, leaving a murky picture of the impact it has had.

Sensible rules…not dissimilar to tobacco.

Advocates argue legalising marijuana leads to more money and more jobs, fewer arrests and frees up police resources.

There have been fewer drug arrests and charges since the law in Colorado came into effect, and a total of $US138 million (approximately NZ$200m) raised in specific marijuana tax revenue in the first two years.

The population of Colorado is similar to NZ…so if that is their tax take from weed we could expect a similar recovery of excise taxes.

The Netherlands is completely different.

While cannabis isn’t legal in the Netherlands, the government doesn’t prosecute people for using or possessing small amounts. Selling what the government calls “soft drugs” in its so-called coffee shops is also illegal, but it doesn’t prosecute for the offence.

Amsterdam, in particular, is known world-wide for its coffee shops where locals and tourists alike gather to share a joint or indulge in marijuana cookies. While the Netherlands has a tolerant approach, figures show locals smoke less than in other European countries.

However, tourists flocking there to make the most of the country’s ‘freedom’ have added to what the government sees as a growing nuisance and crime problem. As a result, it is now focussing on coffee shops becoming smaller and concentrating more on the local market. It’s also introduced a new toleration rule, allowing only Netherlands’ residents into coffee shops. However most cities have used local powers to keep the shops open to foreigners.

Unlike Colorado, it is against the law to grow marijuana and possess it in the Netherlands. However, police will generally only seize the plants if there are five or fewer, but may prosecute if there are more.

Netherlands’ law states:

  • Selling, buying and using soft drugs is illegal, but people won’t be prosecuted for small amounts
  • Users can have no more than five grams (almost a sixth of what is allowed in Colorado) or five cannabis plants – and these may be seized
  • You have to be over 18 to purchase marijuana from a coffee shop
  • Coffee shops are not allowed to sell alcohol alongside cannabis

While the Netherlands’ law is lenient compared to other countries, local authorities argue it doesn’t go far enough. In 2014 a group of mayors put pressure on the justice department to allow them to licence legal suppliers.

So there is a call for supply regulations. That is a sensible approach.

We should move to a similar regime as Colorado, and we should do it sooner rather than later because a whole new and legitimate industry would spring up around legalisation. We are world leaders in agriculture and developing products produced in NZ. We could create a viable and lucrative export market as well.


– RadioNZ

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.