If the goal is to reduce harm to society, cost-benefit analysis shows cannabis prohibition has failed
The idea of a referendum on New Zealand's cannabis law was already urgent 2015 , Prohibition had failed and was costing society far more than the herb itself. As with alcohol, tobacco, prostitution and gambling, regulation, not prohibition, seemed to be the best solution. Nothing has changed as the referendum on the legalization and control of cannabis approaches, on October 17th. On the contrary, the evidence from five decades of the war on cannabis is even more compelling.
First, tens of thousands of New Zealand lives have been disproportionately damaged, not by the use of weed, but by its criminalization.
According to figures published as part of the Official Information Act, between 1975 and 2019: 12978 people spent time in prison for convictions related to cannabis (consumption and / or trafficking). During the same period, 62777 people were sentenced to community sentences for cannabis-related convictions.
All of this statistics were not distributed evenly. Māori are more likely to be convicted of cannabis-related charges, even though they represent higher rates of use.
Each conviction represented actual or potential harm to employment prospects, the ability to travel, education and other forms of social opportunity.
Cannabis use is on the rise despite the law
Second, despite these sanctions and the millions of hours police have spent enforcing the law, the demand remains higher than ever. As with international trends (an estimated 192 million people used cannabis in 2018, making it the most widely used drug in the world), the number of people using cannabis in New Zealand is increasing. increase.
Despite all the hype, propaganda, and fear, research suggests that most New Zealanders (nearly 80%) born in the 1970s have used cannabis at least once. However, such use has not made the population lose their heads.
This is not a universal rule. For a minority (perhaps 4 to 10% of all users), there is a risk of developing an addiction which hinders their psychological, social and / or professional functioning. Again, the Maori suffer disproportionately in this area.
Despite these risks, overall, the damage caused by cannabis is much less (both to individuals and to society in general) than that caused by legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.
The black market only works for criminals
Third, criminals have thrived on the illegality of cannabis. The median price per ounce fluctuates between 350 and 400 dollars. With such attractive profit margins for an illegal product, a black market is inevitable.
On the other hand, the quality and safety of the product are not regulated, the market is not controlled (children become customers) and no taxes are levied on profits. The contagion crime rate rises as gangs or cartels seek to monopolize business and expand their territory.
The referendum now proposes the Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill as a solution to these problems. If this bill were to pass, the current situation would change in several important ways:
- access to cannabis for people 20 years of age or older would be limited to a personal supply (two plants) or the purchase of 14 grams per day at a specified potency level
- the sale would be made through approved establishments selling quality controlled products from approved producers
- standardized health warnings would be mandatory
- advertising would be strictly controlled
- cannabis cannot be consumed in a public place
- selling to someone under 20 would risk four years in prison or a fine of up to 150
- cannabis sales would be taxed
- money would be made available for public education campaigns aimed at raising awareness of the potential harm and promoting responsible use.
By some estimates the potential tax revenue is NZ $ 490 million per year. There are also optimistic arguments that drug-related crime and harm will dramatically decrease, if not completely eliminated. However, these results will depend on the price and quality of the product, the effectiveness of the control of offenders and the provision of adequate assistance to those in need.
There is no perfect solution
While evidence gathered abroad suggests that legalization is reducing many peripheral crimes associated with the illegal supply of cannabis, this tends to backfire on the types of crimes examined and the nature of the black market.
Conditions in New Zealand may be different. These caveats suggest that it is too simplistic to believe that the regulation of recreational cannabis will lead to a happy utopia in New Zealand. There will always be trouble and there will undoubtedly be start-up problems if the new law is passed.
But that's not the question asked on October 17th. Voters must answer the question: Does regulation offer a better way than prohibition when it comes to reducing risk in our society?
Five decades of failure suggests that one of these options offers more hope than the other.