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Positives and negatives of the cannabis bill

The Police Association takes no position on the cannabis referendum, but it wants a law that will work.

Midway through lockdown, the Government released the full details of the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill that is the basis of the referendum which will be voted on, on September 19. It will be a yes/no vote, simply supporting or rejecting that bill.

Since the referendum was proposed, the Police Association has been clear it does not have a position on which way it wants the vote to go. Rather, it has recommended that members do their own homework on the health, education, justice, and policing implications of legalisation, and, based on that information, tick yes or no.

Professionally, association members enforce the law whatever it may be, and if this bill becomes law, that duty will not change.

Last year association president Chris Cahill took an in-depth look at what cannabis legalisation looked like in Canada (Police News, December 2019) which left him believing any change here needed to be accompanied by strong, well-planned and enforceable legislation.

His concerns centred on keeping gangs out of the production and supply chains, coping with potentially increased mental health ramifications – and for home grows, a law that can be effectively policed.

Based on his experience of Canada’s legalisation, Chris considers a few issues relevant to policing.

Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill

Positive: The proposed bill has been made available in plenty of time for voters to school themselves up on exactly what they will be voting for at the election.

Negative: The bill is incredibly long and complicated and requires considerable cross-referencing between parts for an understanding of the implications of many clauses. That is not user-friendly for voters who may not be familiar with the requirements, or may not be motivated to even try.

Sales

Positive: Prohibition of online sales and advertising of cannabis is in line with the association’s belief that the principle of the legislation is to reduce harm associated with cannabis use, not to promote further use of cannabis, which is the aim of advertising.

Positive: The limits on the amount and potency of cannabis for sale are, on the face of it, good.

Negative: A THC potency of 15 under this legislation could be too low for many users, therefore hindering one of the key goals of the legislation, which is to remove the black market from the supply chain. Canadian experience is that the most popular products on sale are those at the lowest price point and with the highest THC levels, and Canada has no limits on the THC levels of dried cannabis.

Enforcement

Positive: The enforcement powers for police are clearly set out in Part 11 of the bill, including what constitutes a warrantless search of a person if a specified offence is suspected, and when a warrant is required to search a dwelling or marae.

Mixed message: From a policing perspective, there is potential confusion surrounding the ban on public consumption of cannabis because previous amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act state that no one should be prosecuted under such circumstances unless the public interest outweighs the value of therapeutic use.

Under section 43 of the proposed bill, police are to issue infringement notices for people using cannabis in public places. Section 44 gives police the option of requiring the person to engage with support services and to waive the infringement fee if they comply.

Negative: The problem with this is support services are not equally available across the country, and that makes this process unfair. It also opens police to accusations of bias or inconsistency in the issuing and/or waiving of infringement notices.

Plants

Confusion: There appear to be two inconsistent prosecution possibilities for the illegal growing of more than 10 plants. Section 24 provides for a maximum of three months’ imprisonment or a $2000 fine, but under section 59, an unlicensed grower is liable for a $100,000 fine.

“As an officer who has policed commercial cannabis growing, it would be normal that anyone with more than 10 plants is doing so for a commercial purpose, not personal recreation, so what would that be – $2000 or $100,000?” Chris asks.

Positive: The bill limits the number of plants to two per person and four per household.

Negative: Checking numerous home grows would be resource-intensive for police and they could not be expected to be constantly checking to see if private growers have two, or four, or six plants.

Gangs

Positive: Legalising cannabis could theoretically remove the gangs’ ability to deliberately suppress the supply of cannabis in favour of promoting their more lucrative meth supply.

Negative: The costs associated with small-grow operations, coupled with relatively low THC level restrictions, will likely result in gangs remaining significant players in the market.

“In Canada, production is large scale and heavily controlled, monitored and reported at every stage. With this bill’s emphasis on micro-cultivation, New Zealand will be hard pushed to emulate this type of control and still have a product that is price-competitive against that of the black market,” Chris says.

“The key message in the lead-up to this referendum is make the effort to school yourself up on the details and vote.”

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