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Decriminalisation better than legalising

Opinion Piece

As the election approaches, so too does the referendum, where voters will be asked whether or not they support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.

Firstly, the bill (and debate) is different from the Medicinal Cannabis Bill which was passed into law last December, and secondly, decriminalising and legalising are two very different issues with their own implications.

I support decriminalising — in other words, consumers of small amounts of cannabis for personal use are exempt from criminal conviction, which can have a lasting effect on life choices and opportunities for many. But I have yet to hear a convincing or robust argument in favour of the legalisation of recreational cannabis.

Cannabis is used by people from all socio-economic backgrounds, and while some consume it for “recreation”, others become dependent on it and captivate to it.

A recent report carried out by Royal Society Te Aparangi found recreational cannabis to be associated with mental illness, particularly in youth, drug use disorders, respiratory illness, impaired cognition, increased road accidents and lower birthweight in babies born to women exposed to cannabis. This Labour-led Government has supported and promoted a smoke-free New Zealand by 2025, yet want to make recreational cannabis use legal.

I am wary of the fact that the bill, although including a minimum age of 20 to use and purchase recreational cannabis, does not address the current environment where cannabis use and addiction is accessible and established under-age. Levels of THC (a crystalline compound that is the main intoxicant in cannabis) are not stated or regulated within the bill. Tax rates are not stated. Those must be balanced to curb the black market, while not incentivising cannabis use.

The proposed regime is vague and imprecise — so an incoming Government could make huge or no changes.

I'm also not sure what will change in many of our more remote areas of this electorate — who will check that only two plants per household are being grown? Who will check that a “black market” isn't operating, run by gangs? The same people who fly helicopters, drive forest roads and check backyards now? The Police? So what will change?

I support decriminalisation and a slow, safe, measured and tested approach towards treating affliction and addiction. We, here in Tairawhiti have high rates of addiction now, combined with high rates of violence and unemployment. I haven't heard any reasonable arguments to prove that legalising cannabis use will make a positive change to those statistics.

I urge you all to cast your vote as if you are casting a vote for the future generation of New Zealand and how that will affect the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of our communities.

  1. Mark, Dunedin says:

    Decriminalisation means it’s still illegal, the police can still take everything you have and give you a fine; in other words, still punish you. They can also still use the power to search you without a warrant.
    According to global statistics, cannabis causes three times less harm than alcohol. If harm is the basis used to keep it illegal, why is alcohol legal?
    The only option is legalisation; it shouldn’t be treated any differently to what alcohol is now, otherwise the public is going to see the over-regulation in comparison to alcohol and continue ignoring the laws anyway. The only way it would work with over-regulation is if you were to apply the same laws and restrictions to alcohol.

  2. Jacob Morrison, Auckland says:

    ‘I have yet to hear a convincing or robust argument in favour of the legalisation of recreational cannabis.’

    Here ya go Mrs Tolley:



  3. Jeanette Saxby, AOD clinician, Dunedin says:

    Anne, I would like to think you are a rational and reasonable person with a few years of life experience. Playing along with the National Party Line does not bring anything new to support the prohibition of cannabis in New Zealand. Decriminalisation is not enough to mitigate the harms of existing prohibition. Nor should a person have to fear the police or end up in court for possession or using cannabis.
    Because you recognise the medicinal benefits of this organic living plant I query the need for you to deny others access. Addiction to substances frequently occurs in a clinical setting. Drug misuse is problematic but a legal framework should provide safe access to cannabis; a regulated and licensed system plus an age restriction of 20 is proposed. Countries that have legalised cannabis have not seen any increase in youth uptake but senior citizens are flocking to buy their “sunshine in a bag”.
    Finally, I urge you to investigate the developments and business opportunities especially for Māori in both medicinal cannabis and hemp. Use local knowledge and support the new green economy.

    The same old message doesn’t hold weight, especially with younger voters who have seen cannabis use normalised for the past 20 years on TV and film.

  4. Shane Le Brun, Blenheim says:

    Decriminalisation reinforces racism in the justice system.

    I’m writing in response to Anne Tolley MP’s opinion in favour of decriminalisation versus legalisation of cannabis. As someone intimately familiar with the Police and justice system, I would suggest her views are out of touch, and her beliefs based in bad public policy proposals.

    I am a white middle-class male from the South Island, who was subject to a police raid that found me in possession of an amount of cannabis that should be assumed for supply. Additionally, I had 20 beautiful, carefully tended specimens with their strain names attached, CBD Lemon Aid, White Widow, Afghan Kush . . . you get the picture, and this was a few weeks before harvest. Still, the intent was to harvest pounds of various crops to experiment with the medical benefits of the varieties for my wife, who suffers horrific chronic pain and was on a plethora of opioids. Due to my public profile as a Medical Cannabis campaigner, the timing of the raid in the lead-up to the 2017 election, and I think significantly, the colour of my skin, I was granted a very lenient 40 hours diversion, with no criminal prosecution. I look back and reflect on how lenient that was, as I now work as a consultant in the industry, collecting a higher than average wage. At the same time, prosecution and a slam-dunk conviction would have left my family struggling, with career opportunities quashed.

    I contrast my experience, with that of Kelly van Gaalen two years prior, a pillar of her community, chair of an arts council, and Community Board member for Kaikohe-Hokianga. While she is not Maori, she is from a region where 2/3rds of the population are. Kelly was caught with roughly 1.5 pounds after Police came to her house when her husband reported a home invasion. The weight is probably the equivalent of flowers from two decent-sized cannabis plants. During her prosecution, dozens of unsolicited character references were given, from the likes of a former Mayor, the local pastor, etc. Despite this, her initial sentence was for two years behind bars, a shocking contrast to my experience that should put the judge sentencing Kelly to shame. From my experience compared to hers, if there is such huge variation in application of the law currently, how much worse is it when we inject race into the mix? A lot worse it seems.

    We know from previous studies that there is significant racial bias within the Police and the justice system. The latest information from research and advocacy group JustSpeak suggests that Maori with no prior convictions are nearly seven times more likely to be prosecuted than Pakeha with no priors. Older data shows much the same trends, such as 30 percent of pre-charge warnings being issued to Maori, vs 57 percent of Pakeha, and 20 percent of Diversions going to Maori despite prosecutions and convictions trending the opposite way.

    The solution to this institutional racism is to remove the grey area that Police operate in. This will require a robust, tightly regulated legal regime that is black and white, with very little room for Police interpretation. Irrespective of the other significant arguments for legalisation, as a population-level effect, the most harmful thing that happens under current cannabis law is being convicted.

    I would suggest if Anne is serious about reducing harm to our communities, she stops listening to her party leadership, who ironically are devoid of leadership on this issue. National have used campaigning points based on proposals from Family First, a homophobic hate group battling to preserve its charity status, and Paula Bennett, in particular, having hosted Alex Berenson, the drug policy equivalent of a flat earth conspiracy theorist, widely debunked by many of the researchers he cites in support of his tragic crusade.

    Alternatively, my challenge to Anne, find me a brown brother or sister granted the same leniency for cultivating 20 large plants, and I will go quiet . . .

  5. Steven, Hamilton says:

    Only decriminalising does not fix the supply issues and the ease of obtaining harder substances from dealers, who have no issues with selling to minors. Regulate the plant and take control of it. If you can’t tell what will change, then please read the documents as supplied by Jacob Morrison in this chat.

    NZ can’t be left behind the modern world on this one. The prohibitionist / punishment model is an absolute failure worldwide and country’s are changing laws almost by the month.

  6. Margaret, Tauranga says:

    I also am against legalization of cannabis here in NZ since my visit to Uruguay after they legalized the substance there. While there, I came across a number of people in public recreational areas whose behaviour was absolutely bizzar. On another occasion while walking in Montevideo I came across a young man who had just collapsed and who was showing symptoms of drug taking.
    I was told by a justice worker in the court system that the dealers of cannabis were putting additives with it to make it a far more potent and dangerous drug.

    Footnote from Ed: Sounds to me like the guy you saw collapsed in Montevideo was showing signs of alcohol and other drug taking.

    1. Mark says:

      In a legal market there would be no additives, did you consider that?

  7. James, Auckland says:

    Decriminalisation means workplaces will still test and fire people who have smoked it in the last couple of weeks. This means people who want to keep their jobs continue to do harder, more dangerous drugs that are out of their systems faster…