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Choosing the possible reform of cannabis law in New Zealand as a theme for the Police Association’s 2018 conference was a brave, but necessary decision, delegates were told.

Massey University drug researcher Associate Professor Chris Wilkins, above, one of a panel of four guests invited to talk on the subject, congratulated the association for opening up the debate before the planned referendum on recreational cannabis use in 2020.

“It has been a brave thing to do, but it is actually also something we really need to do,” he said.

Drug Foundation director Ross Bell, who chaired the panel, also acknowledged the association’s choice. “Police have to be thinking about these issues because, whatever the law is, you have to enforce it.”

More importantly, he said, it was something that would have an impact on members’ lives, not just as police officers, but as New Zealanders.

Other panel members were Carrie Drake, Police district manager: intelligence, who has researched the experiences of frontline police in overseas jurisdictions where cannabis is legal, and justice reform advocate Julia Amua Whaipooti, who is a senior adviser with the Children’s Commission and a spokesperson for JustSpeak.

Association president Chris Cahill told delegates that police were not only starting the discussion on what cannabis law reform might mean, they needed to be at the front of a discussion that was part of a worldwide societal shift.

It is a debate that some members have been reluctant to engage in, preferring to support the status quo, but the reality is, as Dr Wilkins told delegates, attitudes to cannabis are changing  and that is already reflected in how cannabis is policed in New Zealand.

One thing that is abundantly clear, however, is just how complex and wide-reaching the ramifications of a law change could be.

The conference discussion began with a Skype call from Canada, where, a few days later on October 17, recreational cannabis was to become legal. Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association and chairperson of the International Council of Police Representative Associations, explained how the new legalised regime was working from a police perspective.

Not all equal in Canada

Canadian Police Association president Tom Stamatakis said that once it was clear the country would be moving to a more liberal regime on cannabis use, police embraced it, but it had been far from straightforward in a country with 10 provinces and three territories that are all constitutionally independent.

Cannabis was a multibillion-dollar industry in Canada and creating a regulatory framework for the previously unregulated “grey” market, made up of illegal but tolerated operators, was difficult.

Laws on the legal age of purchase, public consumption, rules on edibles and oil and possession limits varied around the country and have still to be established in some places.

He said many police would like the legal age to be higher than that for alcohol, making it harder for youth to obtain cannabis.

The key issue for police staff, he said, was rules on workplace impairment, which also varied by province. “Some police services have outright banned it for their staff.

Others have an arbitrary 24- to 48-hour prohibition before duty; others have a 28-day period of abstinence.”

However, he said, such rules were not evidence-based. The latest research showed there was no meaningful hangover from recreational cannabis use as opposed to chronic use. “Research shows that with a recreational user, any impairment dissipates after four hours.”

Some public agencies were imposing “strident policies” on workplaces that would lead to conflict with employees, he said. While others were treating it just like alcohol, with a focus on health and wellbeing.

There had been additional training for police officers who might be dealing with people who had been hurt by marijuana while driving. But, he said, enforcement of the law, as currently done with alcohol, was difficult when the science was not clear in terms of consumption and how it affected impairment across individuals.

The Canadian Police Association had been lobbying for possession to come under a ticketing regime to avoid clogging up the court system with infringement cases.

There were strict rules on production of cannabis (although there were still many illegal producers) and the federal government has introduced “plain-packaging” laws, as with tobacco, for cannabis products. “We have some beautiful retail stores where there has been significant investment in marketing and branding, but now it’s all got to be in plain packaging.”

Society is changing

Associate Professor Chris Wilkins said New Zealand society was already changing in terms of attitudes to cannabis, including the way it was policed.

Apprehensions for cannabis use had declined by 70 per cent between 1994 and 2014 and about half of all arrests now resulted in warnings only.

“If we decriminalise cannabis, the outcomes might not be too much different, though there is some concerning stuff about Māori not getting pre-charge warnings.”

The benefits and risks needed to be weighed, he said.

Benefits included greater access to help services, potential for reduced costs of drug enforcement, fewer economic opportunities for criminals, more economic opportunities for legal entrepreneurs and tax revenue for drug treatment.

Risks included increased cannabis-related harm, undermined educational achievement, more vehicle and workplace accidents, the black market continues and a powerful commercial cannabis lobby group might emerge.

There were at least 12 options for reform, he said, ranging from decreased sanctions to a standard commercial model (see chart).

There was not sufficient data now to tell what the consequences of decriminalisation might be. That would take more than 10 years.

Much could be learnt, however, from the experience overseas and the referendum should include all policy options with pre-referendum evidence and debate required to help people make an informed decision. “The only option we have now is prohibition.”

Another challenge for legalisation would be the ability to develop safer products and potentially outcompete the black market so people knew what they were getting. “One of the reasons cannabis is associated with psychosis is that, with illegal cultivation, the levels of THC have been raised and CBD – the anti-psychotic component – has been bred out.”

Green Party drug policy spokesperson Chloe Swarbrick spoke briefly to delegates about the referendum, saying the fundamental issue behind potential law reform was harm reduction and all stakeholders, including police, needed to take part in the debate.

Clarity sought on police responsibilities

New Zealand’s laws on cannabis were not necessarily broken, but clearer policies on what police responsibilities might be were needed, Carrie Drake told delegates. As part of her master’s thesis, the Police district manager: intelligence researched the impact of legalisation on frontline police in American states where there has been law reform.

There were five main observations, she said:

• Organised crime was still involved

• Due to inconsistency in policies and law, police responsibility was not always clear or achievable

• Driving while impaired remained an unmitigated risk

• There were poor social outcomes for youth in newly legalised jurisdictions

• It was difficult to get harm prevention messages right.

Legalisation had not reduced demand for service in many places, she said. “A lot of organised crime is involved in the black market sale of cannabis being taken out of state or to other countries. The US is still seeing Colombian drug cartels operating.

They find a ‘cleanskin’ business, such as a grow house, and use it launder money from other illegally obtained profits.”

There were also small-scale operators, growing and supplying outside of the system. “They operate in a basement and it’s sold cheaper because there are no overheads such as retail store rents or taxes and they advertise by word of mouth.

“Business representatives and lobby groups are trying to normalise the consumption of cannabis, but there are still problems of misuse by youth.”

Cannabis remained a profitable commodity regardless of its legal status, she said, and the problem of gangs exploiting socially deprived people was not going to go away any time soon.

Opportunity for transformational change

It can be a challenge to be part of change, but police have a wealth of knowledge that could be shared as part of effecting transformational change in the justice system, Julia Amua Whaipooti told delegates.

The justice reform advocate said that part of that change was reforming the role of police in our lives – and cannabis law reform was “one of the lowest hanging fruit”.

“It’s a health issue,” she said.

Whānau were “infected” by the disease of drug addiction and the response should not be to criminalise that behaviour which then had a cumulative impact on a person’s life.

“It’s very difficult to contribute to society if you have a criminal conviction. There are serious flow-on effects and at the moment we don’t have alternatives to these entry points through police. You are the front door to the criminal justice system.

“Commissioner Mike Bush has been the only person to acknowledge that bias exists within policing. It’s been normalised as if there is something inherently criminal about being Māori – that is not true.”

New Zealand was “behind internationally” in terms of the “war on drugs”, which was failing. “You must police in a different way,” she urged.

There was pushback on cannabis law reform in Māori communities who were affected by the harmful end of cannabis use.

Ms Whaipooti’s message was that while harm was caused by dependency, it was also caused by criminalising the behaviour.

Drivers for cannabis law reform

Demographics – younger generation want reform

Demographics – older people with medicinal needs (e.g. Grey Power)

International – legalisation in 8 U.S. states, Canada, Uruguay

Economic – tax revenue from legal cannabis ($247 million in Colorado in 2017)

Economic – business opportunities from legal cannabis (recreational and medicinal) $100+ billion industry

Economic – California legalised cannabis and is the 5th largest economy in the world


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