New Zealand Drug Foundation

Alternative Systems of Cannabis Control in New Zealand

Executive Summary

The Drug Policy Forum Trust is a group of scientists and professionals dedicated to elevating the level of debate concerning illicit drug policy in New Zealand. We view drug use as primarily a public health issue.

In this discussion paper the Forum summarises the research literature concerning alternative systems for cannabis control. The Forum does not recommend a particular alternative system at this point - beyond rejecting a policy of total prohibition, which we regard as unworkable and counterproductive. Based on the submissions we receive concerning this discussion paper and on our broader consultative process the Forum will recommend a specific alternative system of cannabis control for New Zealand early in 1998.

We hope that the search for an alternative, evidence-based cannabis control policy is widely supported across New Zealand. Even impassioned anti-cannabis campaigners have acknowledged that it makes little sense to criminalise adults who wish to relax in private with cannabis rather than alcohol. The challenge, as we see it, is to design a credible, detailed alternative system for cannabis control. To our knowledge, this task has not yet been attempted in New Zealand, nor has the international scientific literature concerning alternative systems been summarised here.

Systems of Cannabis Control: Terminology and Classification

Several taxonomies of cannabis control systems have been proposed. In this discussion paper we follow the classification developed by the Australian Institute of Criminology:

The terms "legalisation" and "decriminalisation" are avoided because of confusion regarding their meaning. The term "partial prohibition" refers to a system that legalises possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use, but bans for-profit sale, whereas "regulation" refers to a system roughly equivalent to that used for alcohol.

Analysis of Cannabis Control Policies

We assume that the principal goals to which a national cannabis policy in New Zealand should be directed are (1) to minimise the harmful use of cannabis and (2) to promote public health. In view of these goals, a key attribute of cannabis control policies is the extent to which policies reduce (or produce) harm to individuals and societies.

One major study of alternative policies listed nearly 50 "harms and costs" related to drug use, along with an indication of who bears the harm/cost (e.g. user, society) and the primary source of the harm (e.g., the drug itself, illegality). Harms were divided into four categories: health, social and economic functioning, safety and public order, and criminal justice.

The authors concluded that the substantial majority of harms and costs associated with drug use stem from illegality and/or enforcement of the prohibition laws. However, as noted by the authors, judgment is required to assess the relative weight assigned to the various harms and costs - making it difficult to rank policies definitively according to harm produced or prevented.

The most extensive analysis of the social effects of alternative cannabis control systems was conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) in 1995. This study evaluated each option in the AIC’s six-part taxonomy (above) along several dimensions, including: patterns of cannabis consumption, health and psychological functioning, law enforcement, crime and other legal issues, education and employment, family and community relations, and the social impact on young people. The authors concluded that, although large gaps existed in the research evidence, a policy of total prohibition generally increases harm across each dimension.

These studies imply that a cannabis control policy based on harm reduction requires removal of criminal sanctions on (at least) personal possession, ruling out a policy of total prohibition without an expediency principle (i.e., New Zealand’s current policy).

Total Prohibition with an Expediency Principle

The Netherlands has since 1976 permitted the sale and purchase of small quantities of cannabis through a system of regulated coffeeshops. These activities remain technically illegal, but are tolerated by the legal-judicial system. According to current information obtained from The Netherlands’ official Ministry of Health internet website, the Dutch policy has

protect[ed] young adults who wish to use soft drugs at a certain stage in their lives from the world of hard drugs has also proved to be a realistic one. Only a very small proportion of the young people who use soft drugs make the transition to hard drugs.

The extent to which a Holland-style coffee-shop model of cannabis control would suit New Zealand is an interesting and open question. The problem of "drug tourism", which has troubled Amsterdam and a few other Dutch cities, would likely be substantially less in New Zealand due to its remoteness and lack of shared borders with other countries.

Prohibition with Civil Penalties

In this system possession and use of cannabis are not subject to criminal penalties, but are subject to fines. The major advantage of the civil-penalty approach is political, in that it has already been implemented in several coutries. The basic operational advantage of this approach is that low-level offenders would not be burdened with a criminal record. Another potential advantage lies in reducing the cost of enforcing the cannabis law. However, several years’ experience in South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory has shown that such schemes have saved little or no money for the legal-judicial system, and in fact can substantially increase the number of "cannabis crimes". On the other hand, considerable savings has been demonstrated following institution of this policy in California.

The major drawback of the civil-penalty approach is that simply substituting civil penalties for criminal ones does nothing to reduce the size (and harmfulness) of the black market. The high profits available in illicit cannabis commerce would continue to draw entrepreneurs into that market.

Partial Prohibition

Partial prohibition would permit adults to possess up to a defined amount of cannabis and to cultivate up a certain number of cannabis plants. This system was recommended by the Victorian Premier’s Drugs Advisory Committee in 1996 and by the Australian Institute of Criminology in 1995, primarily on the grounds that it would substantially reduce the black market and associated harms. It is in place Alaska, Spain, and Italy.

The extent to which partial prohibition would affect the black market and its associated harms is an important question. Experience in Alaska suggests that a substantial black market has persisted despite a policy of partial prohibition (i.e., permitting personal-scale cultivation), but the relevance of this experience to New Zealand is uncertain.

The problem of specifying limits on personal-scale cultivation is a difficult one. We discuss this question at some length, concluding that limits of between five and eight plants under cultivation at one time might seem reasonable. However, there are significant problems related to enforcement and to assuming criminal intent based simply on the number of plants under cultivation.


Only a regulated system is highly likely to severely reduce or eliminate the black market in cannabis. By removing this important source of black market income the power of gangs over young people would in all likelihood be substantially reduced.

Additional potential advantages to a regulation approach include:

The differential impact of partial prohibition versus regulation on rural (often Maori) communities is an important, unanswered question. It is important that input be obtained from Maori communities concerning the likely effects of various systems of cannabis control on Maori health and well-being.

The major drawback to a regulated system is likely to be political. No other country has adopted a system in which cannabis is regulated and taxed like alcohol or tobacco, although the Netherlands approach comes close. Partial prohibition, on the other hand, has been tried with success in other countries. In addition, there is some concern that a regulated approach might increase the extent to which children are exposed to cannabis use.

International Treaty Considerations

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 is often considered a barrier to the liberalisation of cannabis policies. However, analysis of treaty commentary suggests that treaty proscriptions concerning cannabis are aimed primarily at large-scale (even international) trafficking.

Governmental commissions on cannabis control have arrived at divergent opinions on the question of whether the Single Convention requires signatory nations to ban personal use of cannabis. Most have discerned substantial flexibility in this regard. A 1994 report by the Australian Institute of Criminology took the position that only free availability is ruled out by international treaties, while the Victorian Premier’s Drug Advisory Council took the position that partial prohibition (at least) was permitted under the treaties.

Our reading of this complicated literature, and of the treaties themselves, leads us to conclude that a policy of partial prohibition, as defined above, would almost certainly be considered by most authorities as being in compliance with international treaties. On the other hand, a policy of regulated commerce would find less support among a majority of authorities. Of more basic concern is the extent to which international involvements should be permitted to dictate domestic policy.

Key Issues in Cannabis Control

Outcome Assessment

Specification of a plan for ascertaining the important outcomes of a reformed cannabis policy is an essential part of the system. These outcomes include changes in the extent of use within society of cannabis and other drugs, as well as

Education Programmes

It is imperative that appropriate and effective education programmes be developed in conjunction with a reformed cannabis control system. As always, specialised programmes would be needed for different target audiences (e.g., adults, school children). The cornerstone of all programmes would be the provision of accurate information. A key goal of drug education programmes would to facilitate the evolution of appropriate public attitudes regarding the responsible use of cannabis.

Treatment Programmes

Relatively little is known about the effectiveness of treatment programmes aimed at rehabilitating cannabis users with problems of dependence or harmful use. The Forum will depend on advice and submissions from experts in this arena to arrive at additional recommendations concerning cannabis treatment programmes in our final report.

Cannabis and Driving

In reviewing the evidence on this topic, we find - somewhat surprisingly - that almost every major study performed in this area has shown that drivers who use cannabis only (i.e., no concomitant alcohol) perform at least as well as "straight" drivers.

However, the combination of alcohol and cannabis appears to be particularly conducive to the production of fatal accidents. Accordingly, one might consider a policy in which the consumption of any alcoholic beverages be prohibited if one also consumes cannabis prior to driving. Such a policy might be difficult to enforce, however.

The Drug Policy Forum is calling for submissions on this discussion paper and will recommend a specific alternative system of cannabis control for New Zealand early in 1998.

Submissions should be sent to Drug Policy Forum Trust, P O Box 12199, Wellington, and must be received no later than 15 October 1997. Or submissions can be sent via email to

Discussion Forum - to give your comments and view other people's ideas directly to the NZDF.

Full Text Version of this report on NZDF site. Definitely worth reading.

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