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The Alcohol & Public Health Research Unit has worked on two related projects in the area of cannabis policy:

Cannabis Policy in New Zealand

Since 1993 APHRU has produced several papers providing an overview of, and discussing issues surrounding, cannabis policy in New Zealand.  Click here to see APHRU's submission to the 2001 Health Select Committee Inquiry into the Public Health Effects and Legal Status of Cannabis.

Schools' Policies on Cannabis Use: A Comparison of Ten Auckland Schools

The second project focuses on the issue of schools' management of cannabis use by students. The aims of the project are to outline and compare the policies of ten Auckland secondary or intermediate schools for management of students caught with cannabis and to highlight the issues arising for Board of Trustee members and school principals from the implementation of such policies. In order to cover a spectrum of policy approaches, schools whose policies are known to differ from each other were selected. The findings will provide Boards and those involved in wider cannabis policy debates with information about a range of management options and the ethical and implementation issues arising from them.

Researcher: Sally Abel

Two papers from this project are available in full text on this website:

S. Abel & S. Casswell, Cannabis and Schools: Boards of Trustees' Responses, 1997.

S.Abel & S. Casswell, Cannabis and Schools: Principals Responses, 1997

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Cannabis Policy in NZ - A Background Paper, 1993

Sally Abel and Sally Casswell
Research Report: Cannabis Policy in NZ: A Background Paper, 1993
Peer Review: External

A review of policy relating to cannabis use, possession and supply in New Zealand was undertaken in 1992-3 with funding from the Department of Health and the New Zealand Police. It brings together information from written and verbal sources as a contribution towards future discussion of cannabis policy.

Possible policy options for New Zealand were contextualised through a review of relevant illicit drugs policies from other Western nations. The state and context of New Zealand cannabis policy were investigated, along with the role of stakeholders and interest groups in the field. Available statistics on cannabis use and the impact of legislative enforcement measures were also reviewed. Twenty-eight key informants were interviewed for their views on cannabis prohibition, implementation of current policy and its implications, and their recommendations for policy change. A number of issues arising from current cannabis policy were identified and examined.

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Summary of findings

Policy options for the management of cannabis range from a policy of total prohibition, as in New Zealand and many other Western nations, through to free availability (with restrictions, such as sale to minors), much like the case of alcohol in this country. There is some variation in stated cannabis policies and enforcement emphases amongst Western nations, from those aiming for total cannabis abstinence (the United States) to those with a broader aim of minimising cannabis-related harm (the Netherlands). Australia has adopted a policy with a harm reduction focus, and some Australian states have introduced instant fines for minor cannabis offences.

The Alcohol & Public Health Research Unit's 1990 survey of drug use in New Zealand (Black & Casswell 1993) found that cannabis, especially in the form of marijuana, was the third most popular recreational drug in New Zealand, after alcohol and tobacco. At least 43% of the population had tried it and 12% were current users. It was by far the most commonly used illicit drug.

Under the New Zealand Misuse of Drugs Act (1975) it is illegal to cultivate, supply, possess or use cannabis. Enforcement measures include detection and apprehension of suppliers and users, and crop eradication. Demand reduction measures include drug education programmes for schools, initiated by voluntary organisations and by the Ministry of Education initiatives. A number of government departments and organisations have had input into the development of cannabis policy. These include the New Zealand Police, Ministry of Health, Justice Department, Ministry of Education, Drugs Advisory Committee and New Zealand Drug Foundation.

In 1984 a Heylen poll of 1,000 New Zealanders found that 59% felt marijuana legislation and penalties were satisfactory. The 1990 drug survey by the Alcohol & Public Health Research Unit found that, when questioned about the appropriateness of the level of enforcement for marijuana users, 32% of those interviewed felt they were satisfactory, a quarter felt they were too heavy and another quarter that they were too light. The majority felt that levels of enforcement for marijuana suppliers were too light.

In 1991 more than 19,000 cannabis-related offences were reported in New Zealand. Concern has been expressed about the social and economic costs of cannabis law enforcement. In recent years resources have been directed more toward the supply of cannabis than its use, with lighter penalties for minor cannabis offences. However, in 1989 there were five people in New Zealand prisons whose primary charge was cannabis use or possession. The police adult pre-trial diversion scheme, a discretionary scheme introduced nationally in 1990, has made it possible for many first time offenders on minor cannabis offence charges to bypass the courts and avoid criminalisation.

Key informants felt that some advantages of cannabis prohibition were that:

  • it reduced supply and thus use of the drug;
  • it acted as a deterrent to some sectors of the population;
  • it expressed societal disapproval which supported drug education messages;
  • it encouraged some users, through their encounter with the law, to reconsider using cannabis or, if dependent, to accept treatment.

The disadvantages of cannabis prohibition perceived by respondents were:

  • the effects of prosecution on the offender;
  • the economic costs of enforcement measures;
  • that it prevented formal monitoring of or controls on supply, distribution
  • and standards;
  • that it created a black market which had become increasingly violent;
  • and that it prevented effective education about responsible use.

Most respondents supported current levels of enforcement for large scale supply for profit. Many favoured the less punitive approach taken in recent years to cannabis use and personal possession. However, concern was expressed about the extent of police discretionary power under the Misuse of Drugs Act and its potential for discriminatory use.

The adult pre-trial diversion scheme for minor cannabis offences was viewed very favourably by most. Advantages mentioned were that it avoided a criminal record, the penalty could be shaped to the needs of the individual and better related to health messages, and it allowed fines to be donated to local organisations rather than going out of the community. However, some were concerned about the discretionary powers of police under the scheme, the potential for discriminatory application and the fact that acknowledgment of guilt was a precondition for diversion.

Many respondents felt that there was inadequate emphasis in current cannabis policy on education about the health effects of cannabis use. As a result of this, and in the absence of a clear authoritative health perspective, it was felt that many myths were circulating about the health effects of cannabis use.

Respondents involved with those detected or prosecuted for cannabis related offences felt that the impact on the offender varied according to their penalty. Those who were diverted tended to be frightened, but relieved and grateful. The impact on those who were prosecuted was much more negative. These effects included loss of employment, accommodation or club membership, reduced travel opportunities, and feelings of depression, mistrust, defiance or resentment towards the law.

Most respondents felt that current cannabis policy was largely ineffective as a deterrent to cannabis use. It was felt that, while it deterred use amongst some sectors of society, cannabis was well accepted among other groups and, amongst those who chose not to use it, other reasons were probably more significant in their choice. Maori respondents felt that cannabis use was very popular amongst young Maori and the law did not deter use.

The cannabis economy was perceived to be thriving by many respondents. Concern was expressed about cannabis cultivation and distribution being increasingly controlled by those with criminal backgrounds and about increased levels of violence associated with this black market economy. Some felt that publicity about crop recoveries only increased the price and profits for many large scale cannabis suppliers.

However, the 1990 survey data also revealed that many users acquire their marijuana supplies for free. Among current users (12% of sample), 43% were given all their marijuana for nothing and a further 21% received most of their supply free.

Approximately 9% were cultivating at least some marijuana for personal use. Only 11% reported purchasing all of their supply.

Key informants' recommendations included:

  • that more research be undertaken on the extent of cannabis use and related problems as well as on the meanings attributed to cannabis use;
  • that more emphasis be placed on information and education about the health implications of cannabis use; that a range of prevention strategies be developed at a local level in conjunction with the community;
  • that more resources should be put into crop recovery;
  • that the diversion scheme be further extended and adopted more consistently throughout the country;
  • that an instant fine system, much like the one in Australia, be trialled here;
  • and that cannabis use, possession and cultivation for personal use be decriminalised.

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