Our cannabis black market has no regulations and thus no restrictions. This applies, perhaps most importantly, to age. Drug dealers don't ask for ID.
Canada's newly elected Liberal Party, in its "regulate, tax and restrict" policy, made restricting youth cannabis use its highest priority. They have the highest youth cannabis rates in the world, with New Zealand close behind them. They are trying something different. With prohibition doing little to curb youth use, a well-regulated 18+ system with evidence-based education and tough penalties for those who supply young people is worth a shot.
The black mark of a cannabis conviction can have major consequences for a person's future life, job and travel opportunities.
Whether "it’s their own dumb fault", as some heartlessly argue, or not, those potential consequences don't stop people using cannabis, and they create a cost to society. "Penalties against drug use should not be more damaging…than the use of the drug itself," former US president Jimmy Carter once said.
And unfortunately some people get caught. The police have admitted that most cannabis arrests come about through the carrying out of other duties.
The law is widely disliked. Over half of the population believe it should be changed. It engenders disrespect for the police and the law. Prohibition unfortunately turns police into the enemy, as it did with alcohol.
If police are already warning the majority of people they find with cannabis, and a conviction does little to stop people smoking (one study showed 95 per cent would continue using cannabis), and those convictions screw people’s life up, let’s at the very least stop making personal possession a crime.
Of course, doing this only solves half of the problem and gives us half the benefits though.
That unregulated, youth-friendly market still exists and therein lies big profits for organised crime. While cannabis is described as a "gateway drug", it is really this system that acts as the gateway. There is nothing inherent in the chemistry of cannabis itself, any more than there is in that of a banana that leads people on to cocaine, ecstasy, meth etc. People try drugs because they’re curious and they have the opportunity. The Netherlands figured it out 40 years ago: separate cannabis users from the opportunity.
There are ways for us to create a legal market that isn't profit-driven. For example, licensed producers sell their product to government-run stores. A minimum price is established that competes with the black market but doesn’t drive further consumption (hello, $7.99 bottles of wine), numbers and location of stores are strictly regulated, as opposed to the tinny houses we have now (who remembers John Key’s ironic statement that Kiwis don’t want tinny houses on every corner?), and profits are returned to the community, à la Lotto and pokies.
It's just one idea, and I realise, a somewhat crazy one in this neoliberal world of ours, but with cannabis legalisation, we could do it right and form a model that may even eventually improve our alcohol laws. It's time to move on to a proper discussion of how, not whether, cannabis laws should be changed.
Tax take – so what could "Big Cannabis" actually get us? Last year it was revealed that the NZIER had taken a look at what a regulated market could do for the country’s finances in a report delightfully titled The High Cost of (not) Stopping People Getting High. It concluded taxes would reap about $150 million. The NZIER didn’t stop there though. The economic benefit also includes spending on drug enforcement dropping by 40 per cent, or $180 million.
The social benefit of that is police on the beat dealing with real crime and courts unclogged of petty possession offences. Prohibition costs us over $300 million a year and is largely a waste of public resources. That money would pay for the health impacts associated with cannabis. It would pay for a lot of addiction treatment (woefully underfunded at present). It would pay for a lot of a lot of things.
Yes, the police will have a new job to do policing the regulatory system, but that will settle as the market matures. Yes, cannabis use will potentially rise (a Canadian report shows 13 per cent of non-users are likely to try cannabis once it becomes legal), but those not using cannabis already are very unlikely to become problematic users. And hey, with the recent news of the part stress plays in heart attacks and strokes, weed’s amazing stress-relieving properties may even save the health system money!
Colorado, a state roughly as populous as New Zealand, has seen 18,000 direct or ancillary jobs created through its cannabis market. The rate of people seeking treatment for cannabis has stayed steady. Teen cannabis use is down slightly.
In its most recent fiscal year, the state collected over $140 million in tax on cannabis sales, spent on school improvement ($40 million a year is earmarked specifically for this), health care, health education, substance abuse prevention and treatment programs, and law enforcement. Municipalities can spend their cut as they choose and have dedicated money to homelessness, road repair, new civic buildings, and scholarships for low-income students, among other things.
Downsides? Some. An increase in hospital presentations related to edible cannabis products and a rise in inter-state trafficking that is keeping police busy as Colorado becomes the Napa Valley of pot. No system is going to be perfect, but with a regulated system the state now has flexibility and means to make changes to deal with issues as they arise.
Liking cannabis and supporting law reform needn’t be synonymous. A lot of people will never like cannabis, but they can’t argue the present prohibitionist system is working. We know it doesn’t work. There is a better public policy possible and regulating, taxing and restricting cannabis is it.