The debate over cannabis use in New Zealand is far from over. Photo / File
A major change in US drug policy led New Zealand to follow suit.
US President Joe Biden recently announced an executive order granting clemency to thousands of Americans convicted of simple cannabis possession charges.
“Sending people to prison for possession of marijuana has upended too many lives and imprisoned people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said.
“And while white, black, and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, black and brown people are disproportionately arrested, prosecuted, and convicted.”
This major shift away from the United States’ history of the war on drugs has led to the New Zealand Drug Foundation calling on the government to follow suit and decriminalize possession of marijuana.
“The majority of New Zealanders support decriminalisation,” Drug Foundation chief executive Sarah Helm said. Front page podcast.
The comments come after the 2020 referendum in which New Zealanders voted against legalizing recreational cannabis in Aotearoa.
While legalization went too far for voters, Helm emphasizes that decriminalization is essentially about making sure people aren’t charged for possessing cannabis.
“We know from polling that more than 80 per cent of New Zealanders think it’s a waste of time and police resources to pursue cannabis convictions. And it really is. We’d love to see that money go to more serious crime. or ideal in the management and support of harm reduction services.”
Another problem with cannabis policing is that it targets certain racial and social groups.
“A disproportionate number of people criminalized for cannabis in New Zealand are Māori,” he says.
The new discretionary policy, which allows police to decide whether to charge someone for cannabis-related offences, has reduced convictions, but Māori are still disproportionately affected.
The Drug Foundation is calling for an evidence-based approach to cannabis.
“The evidence shows that convictions don’t prevent use. They only harm people who are more likely to suffer other harms. If you’re trying to address the harms of cannabis, convicting people won’t help.”
He says resources currently spent on policing could be better spent on treatment and harm reduction advice.
In 2021, more than 2,500 New Zealanders were convicted of cannabis offenses – more than half of which were related to possession.
“New Zealanders’ lives have been significantly damaged by this,” Helm says, pointing out that a conviction can affect someone’s ability to get a job or even travel.
“I hope New Zealanders do the right thing and rewrite our drug laws so they focus on a health-based approach.”
However, the challenge lies in finding the political will to make it happen.
“It has become a weaponized issue and we are in the crossfire of the main parties who are using this issue to throw pot. [at each other]. We really need to defuse the issue. And in the meantime, do what’s right because New Zealanders are going to fall through the cracks.”
• The Front Page is the New Zealand Herald’s daily news podcast, which can be heard from 5am every weekday.
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