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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  • Souvlaki

    Regretably…in this country..dogma ( against marijuana) is likely to hold sway over rational discussion. Depressing really & Key seems most unwilling to even discuss the issue?

  • Brian Smaller

    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.

    Except that NZ doesn’t have nearly 300 million other people who can drive over to buy some dope.

    • Uncle Bully

      Yes, and let’s plan for the advent of pot-head tourism, where European backpacker tourists in their wicked camper vans come here to escape their winter and to enjoy the greenery of NZ. If tourists driving on the wrong side is a problem now, imagine what it would be like if they are lazily meandering around NZ’s back country roads in a pot-induced stupor.

  • LesleyNZ

    A friend whose family member is a cop in the Colorado Mountain area says otherwise. Legalizing marijuana has made their job more difficult and apparently the place is full of potheads. I do not have a problem with medicinal marijuana – I do have a problem with legalizing recreational use. Then there is the smoke pot and drive issue. And then there is the permanent brain damage caused by cannabis use. Who pays for that when the potheads need medical care?

    • So its ok for alcohol, but weed is bad how? People are smoking pot now Lesley…and driving…it won’t all of a sudden increase.

      As for medical costs…same goes for alcohol…who pays now for accidents and injuries and wife beatings that result from drunkenness? That is why you tax it…the smoker pays.

      None of your arguments hold any water…especially when you compare it with alcohol.

      • Diehard

        I don’t get the “alcohol is bad and legal so therefore cannabis should be legal too” argument. Yes alcohol is bad in a lot of hands, we know that but can’t change it. Smoking too is bad and look at the trouble we are having taking tobacco out of circulation. I believe the smoke from cannabis is even worse is it not? So how can we promote the use of cannabis while discouraging tobacco.

        This discussion has nothing to do with alcohol, that train has left the station.

        • taxpayer

          I don’t get the “alcohol is bad and legal so therefore cannabis should be legal too” argument.
          It’s just the sheer hipocrisy of it people can’t stand, alcohol causes so much harm in the community every day, that can not be denied, yet it is legal because of the massive tax revenue it generates.
          Where as your average pot smoker simply watches TV, giggles a lot and eats 20 mars bars, and for that he is a criminal.
          Nobody is promoting the use of cannabis, we are just saying that a lot of people smoke it whether it’s legal or not, where there is a will there is a way and you can never legislate morality.
          So why not just except that fact, tax it, regulate it and take a chunk out of the gangs income to boot.
          Lets face it the stuff is already freely available to those who want it, and being able to buy it over the counter would not increase it usage by much if any at all.
          Take the revenue and extra police time and use it to smash the dangerous drugs like P and Heroin.

  • Hard1

    “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.”
    According to http://salient.org.nz/2014/05/mps-questions/ , May 4 2014,Dunne has firsthand experience smoking Ganga. So have several Labour MP’s. And so I suspect have the majority of Kiwi’s under 60 and over 15. All the myths have been debunked, but my experience is that regular dope smokers like being in their own little world, which is quite harmless to others if you are smoking at home.

    • Dave of the West Bank

      “all the myths have been debunked.”

      When I see a generlisation such as that my BS detector starts rattling. Sounds like a climate alarmist saying, “All scientists agree…”

      How many myths?

      What myths?

      Debunked by whom?

      • Hard1

        That Marijuana is a gateway drug to harder drugs. Wrong. Alcohol is.
        That Marijuana makes violent people more violent. Wrong
        That Marijuana overuse can be fatal. Wrong.
        That Marijuana use leads to crime. Wrong.
        That Marijuana is addictive. Everything is addictive. Not wrong.
        That Marijuana causes brain damage. Wrong. Ask the dozen or so MP’s who smoke it.

        That’ll do. Debunked by the over half a million Marijuana smokers in NZ, on behalf of.

        • xennex

          Frequent cannabis use does not have positive outcomes – they ” experienced downward social mobility and more financial problems”.

          • Hard1

            Very true of two members of my immediate family, both talented, one a journalist and one a musician, both poorly off financially. One, the brokest, is stoned every waking minute. He is a far better person than any drunk.

        • hookerphil

          I would think brain damage and MP’s is obvious.

  • MrHippo

    Removing speed camera vans and traffic police focussed on 4km/hr speed ‘criminals’ would also free up resources….. How about we have the ‘recreational speeding’ debate?

    • pirate vs ninja

      Simple economics:
      Speeding drivers cause accidents that cost taxpayers money. Speed fines recoup some of this cost.
      Pot smokers cause accidents and health problems that cost taxpayers money. Legalisation will recoup some of this cost.

      • MrHippo

        ‘Speeding drivers cause accidents’ hence speeding is illegal so we fine them. Drugged drivers cause accidents so you want to make it legal and hence cannot fine them. Sounds like an interesting economics argument to me.

  • Diehard

    Legalising/decriminalising or whatever it is called is going to encourage further consumption. That might be fine for middle class white New Zealand who can handle getting high every once in a while but still function as a productive member of society. We all know the massive underclass can not, they will just spend more of their benefit on drugs at the expense of food for the kids. But at least they will feel better about themselves because they won’t be breaking the law.

    If taking away the gangs market dominance is an argument then lets legalise the supply of P as well. Tobacco is legal but the gangs still do a good trade in stolen cigarettes, they would do the same with cannabis. All that would happen is the illegal supply would be cheaper than it is now, competition drives down the price.

    Our police already look the other way and do not prosecute for small amounts, it’s called the pre charge warning and is being used more and more often. Anyone who is charged with simple possession is mostly done so in combination with other more serious charges.

    Colorado’s law – “You can have up to one ounce of marijuana, and can give one ounce to someone, but can’t sell it”. And here it is!, the big loop hole that means anything goes. This is un policeable so why have any rules at all.

    The other thing to remember is Europe and the USA are not New Zealand, they are not populated by huge polynesian populations. I’m sorry for not being p.c but someone has to say it, they can’t handle their alcohol nor can they handle other drugs and keep themselves and the community safe so how will increasing their drug consumption help our society?

    Lets pick a town and do an experiment first to see what the benefits would be of copying Colorado. How about Kaikohe, there’s a town in need of an economic boost, if it works there then we could try somewhere larger like Porirua or even Otara. If increasing drug usage in these towns has a positive effect by turning the occupants into law abiding productive tax payers instead of tax receivers I will admit I was wrong and support decriminalisation. It would be truly a magic substance if it could achieve that.

    • pirate vs ninja

      You’re making the huge assumption that the under-class in NZ cannot already access large quantities of marijuana. Supply is not an issue, nor is there ANY feeling of guilt whatsoever. The percentage of the population that want to smoke a large quantity of pot daily already do just that. It’s like suggesting legalizing gay marriage will suddenly turn more people gay.
      Legalization will turn drug-addled bludgers into productive tax-payers in a roundabout way; if we accept that they’re already using, we might as well collect tax revenue from their habit, just as we do with tobacco.

      • Diehard

        Yes agreed they are already using. Just the quantity will increase as the price drops and it becomes socially acceptable.

        How can you get tax from someone who grows their own dope? Send police door to door and write out an invoice per plant. It’s so easy to grow that will be the prefered way of accessing supply, especially in the north. No snow up here.

        • pirate vs ninja

          Grow their own! We’re talking about people that would rather shuffle to the dairy and the chippie for dinner than cook cheese-on-toast and get a glass of water from the tap. Growing anything more than mould in their homes might not be quite as straightforward as you suggest.

          • Diehard

            It is. I’ve seen it.

            Getting out of it is the ultimate motivator for them.

  • sandalwood789

    I like the Colorado approach too. Legalise, regulate and *tax*. There would surely be a *billion* dollar boost to the tax take if we went the same way as Colorado.

    I’m not at all interested in smoking weed but I *would* like to try drinks and food containing cannabis. The stuff that has CBD in it seems to be very good in fighting insomnia, from what I’ve read.

  • Plants

    My experience as an employer is my dope smoking employees (now past employees as they were the ones I made redundant when the downturn occurred), were the ones who had the most accidents especially earlier in the week after the weekend. If cannabis consumption is made legal then it may be easier for me to identify the cannabis users at the interview stage as they will be less likely to hide the fact. Then I can send them a rejection letter. With the work we do it isn’t worth the health and safety risk having someone on staff who uses their workplace as somewhere to detox or who needs a bit of ‘herbal help’ to get them through the day.

    • Andy

      Are you sure alcohol wasn’t what made their ‘morning after’ problems.

  • JohnO

    Why the fake over age 21 restriction ? It did not work for cigarettes, and it will not work for dope. Widespread use of dope among adults is going to be mirrored by widespread use among kids. Delayed maturation and decreased motivation of youth is an expected result of this experiment with the wide spread use of mind altering chemicals.

  • johnandali

    If we’re going to decriminalise drugs, I believe we should also repeal any legislation applying to speed limits on the road. People should be free to drive at any speed they like, as long as they don’t cause accidents. This would free up the Police from having to sit and watch radar systems all day, and they would then have time to investigate burglaries. And while we’re at it, why do we need a drivers licence? And why do we need a licence to own a firearm? We should be allowed to do anything we like without interference. It’s interesting to see the start of the rot that is setting in. Now we have a precedent that allows an under 16 girl to have sex as long as she agrees to it. The world is going crazy. What next? How about my idea of having no speed limits? That would be very popular.

    • Diehard

      Well said.

      Where does it end. Plenty of people commit burglary, lets make it legal and they will have to declare their earnings so we can tax them.

  • I support the decriminalisation of cannabis, not because I regard it is as worthwhile or socially useful, but because I believe that this will minimise the direct and indirect harm if its supply and consumption are brought out of the shadows.

    The war on drugs has been well and truly lost. The reality is that cannabis use in New Zealand is endemic. Despite its illegality, use starting at ages as low as 7 and extending to every day is not uncommon. Do we really want to make these people criminals? What social goal is served through this?

    Removing a very profitable line of business from criminal gangs and bringing it into the tax system will have immediate benefits. The product that is sold will have to meet minimum quality standards, the Consumer Guarantees Act and both GST and excise will be payable on cannabis products. Although cannabis is often regarded as a “gateway” drug to more damaging substances such as methamphetamine, this is likely to be because of its illegality and the supply chains consisting of gang members and criminals who have an interest in encouraging greater uptake of harder drugs. We do not see, for example, cannabis use leading to heroin, because in New Zealand heroin is now rare. If it were legally sold, most users would no longer be involved with criminal suppliers and the “gateway” argument would simply fail.

    Certainly there is a black market in stolen cigarettes but this is part of the more general problem of the onward distribution of stolen property. Receiving charges may lie in many of these cases.

    Yes, cannabis is harmful, but that harm can be mitigated by specific provisions. It is already an offence against the Land Transport Act 1998 to drive while affected by various drugs, just as it is an offence to drive with excess breath or blood alcohol.

    Through my work I see extensive numbers of people who have used drugs. It is true that a much greater level of criminal offending results from the misuse of alcohol than cannabis, although I do not minimise the harmful effects cannabis may have on those that use it. This can be mitigated through public health initiatives and a suitably calibrated tax regime.

    • Diehard

      How can we say the war on drugs has been lost? Same as saying humans are causing the global temperature to rise. There is no evidence.

      You would need a control to determine that, a country with absolutely no laws and restrictions at all. Yes drug use is wide spread, imagine the state of the country if there were NO drug laws at all.

      I suggest the war on drugs has largely been successful in that it at least keeps it in check, or to use a global warming comparison it is stopping further temperature increases.

      Loving the debate on what appears to be a pro drug use blog.

      • taxpayer

        I don’t think this is a “pro drug use blog” and I have read it for many years
        It’s a blog of rational thinking (to me anyway) and comments are healthy debate without tipping over in to abuse and trolling.
        I respect that you are anti drug and that is fine, however drug taking is just another recreational pastime and who are you, me or anyone else to tell other people how to use their spare time.
        Maybe you or I have a pastime that other people would like to see banned, say motor racing if you are a green party member, or mountain biking, skiing and rugby if you take issue with the vast amounts those pastimes cost ACC I.E you and me.
        Where does it end.
        Live and let live.

        • Diehard

          Yes. My pass time of shooting living things is always under threat.

          My concern is for the less well educated the addicts and the general harm that I see every day caused by drugs (including cannabis). This is real and documented and no one can guarantee that increasing or promoting or liberalising drug use will have any positive outcomes for society in general.

          If you are currently using with no issues by all means carry on. If you are not a criminal who is drawing attention to yourself then you will likely never be caught and prosecuted. So the current laws do not affect you adversley.

          Many of my friends do use, I respect their choice, they are still friends. I agree with”you live and let live”, just my opinion- that is no reason to change the current law on drugs.

          • taxpayer

            No I don’t use any drugs except alcohol.
            But what about the guy sitting quietly, stoned, happy watching south park, knock knock, hi it’s the police come to talk to you about the burglary down the street, what’s that smell? We will use the misuse of drugs act and go though your house and everything you own, find a milligram of pot and drag you in to court on a charge.
            This does happen all the time, and why? who are they hurting? Why is it a crime? they are just watching south park, eating chocolate and not bothering anyone.
            Less time with this sort of stuff and more time with the people who really cause the problems would be a good start.

          • Diehard

            This is the guy who gets the warning, not put before court. The police are the last ones to spend any time on that scenario. Do you realise the paperwork involved in a drugs arrest? Plus they won’t be investigating the burglary in the first place. Would be nice if they did. The only time they will knock on the door is if the guy is smashing his wife. In that case he deserves everything he gets.

            This type of drug arrest is avoided at all costs, times have moved on, your conclusions above about it happening all the time are wide of the mark.

            Want proof:

            The police have achieved their target of 20% LESS people put before the courts. In fact they are closer to 25%, clearly they are not prosecuting your fictional example of 1 milligram of pot and are spending less or no time on this type of event. Minor drug possession is simply not prosecuted now unless you are a serious criminal.

            Is 1 gm of pot even a usable amount?? (I’m no expert on using drugs). Its no offence if its not a usable amount. Never heard of anyone prosecuted for 1 gm but if you were I guess you were just unlucky and maybe it was a long time ago or there was something else going on, you seem to be very well informed for not being a user.

          • taxpayer

            The police visited me RE a burglary down the road less than a month ago.
            You can, and people have, been dragged before the court for zero milligrams, just utensils for smoking and no drugs at all, it all depends on the officer.
            You are suggesting that because I have expressed a view on this subject I must be a user, druggie to you I guess .
            Nothing could be further than the truth, but I hate to see people persecuted for harming nobody, causing no trouble and minding their own business.
            Get the real crims first I say.
            I had plenty of pot head friends when I was young, one is now a politician, one is a top cop, and one is a low life.
            The odd joint had little to do with the outcome of their lives.

          • Uncle Bully

            Back in the days of my misspent youth, I was aware of pot being sold by the gram (high quality stuff, when hybrid strains started being grown hydroponically).

            If you rolled that gram into a single joint, it would be quite a banger.

          • Andy

            ahh, have you ever watched the Police shows on TV. They search cars all the time and they enter houses looking for pot implements. It’s ridiculous. Like Fahrenheit 451 firemen looking for people not doing the ‘right’ way.

        • Andy

          You are right. Alcohol is a sickening epidemic when viewed by someone who abhors it.

      • MrHippo

        Yes great quote – “The war on drugs has been well and truly lost. The reality is that cannabis use in New Zealand is endemic” and now those lefties want to open up a new war on sugar? Cripes good luck with that! Maybe the soft drink companies could just substitute one active ingredient (sugar) with another (‘recreational drugs’) and that would make it okay in their eyes…

      • Uncle Bully

        So why then are there ever increasing quantities of meth being imported into NZ? $40M last month in one shipment alone. And to quote evidence (albeit from MSM) – “Last year Customs and Police seized more than 334kg of the drug, nine times the amount seized in 2013.”

        I would have thought if the war on drugs was being won, there would be less being imported as the criminals accepted failure of their enterprise. Or is this increase in meth interceptions just indicative of the death throes of a dying enemy?

        • Diehard

          The fact that it’s seized is a good thing. If we didn’t it would be on the streets. How can success be seen as negative and a loss? Yes the war is ongoing, it’s only lost when pro drug activists succeed in getting a law change to make it legal. In other words the surrender flag is raised like the French in WW2.

      • Andy

        “imagine the state of the country if there were NO drug laws at all.” Not saying no laws, but strict laws in place for drugs that are harmful such as P and pills. Police need resources to combat those not having to deal with petty issues.

  • Andy

    Colorado or South Australia system best. Can’t sell it without licence and minors are safeguarded. Much preferable to what happens now with basically innocent young people entering criminal worlds meeting gangs and bad people.


    If anyone watched Sunday last night, this is what John Lord who was the farmer from Te Awamutu and relocated to Colorado was talking about, it was also mentioned Medical Cannabis was legalized in Colorado in 1999 or 2000 and then came 2012 Recreational Cannabis became legal, this is what New Zealand should seriously be following