Decriminalisation: What works and what doesn’t

By April 1, 2016 Recent News

Radio NZ 1 April 2016
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.

But, he favoured the Colorado model, so what’s really the difference between Colorado and the Netherlands’ approach? Quite a lot, it turns out.

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.

Colorado – The first US state to legalise cannabis

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.

A 2015 report by the federal government’s Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, which monitors the Colorado area, found a 32 percent increase in marijuana-related traffic deaths from 2013 to 2014.

“In 2014, when retail marijuana businesses began operating, toxicology reports with positive marijuana results of active THC results for primarily driving under the influence have increased 45 percent in just one year,” the report stated.

But traffic fatalities were down overall, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation, and overall crime also decreased.

Figures on the number of people who use cannabis vary, but show that people in Colorado generally use it more than those in other states.

Advocates argue legalising marijuana leads to more money and more jobs, fewer arrests and frees up police resources.,-what-doesn’t

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