The case for voting YES in cannabis referendum


At the General Election of 19 September 2020, there will be a referendum on whether New Zealand should legalize cannabis.

There are numerous reasons why I am voting yes in the 2020 referendum on the legalization of cannabis. In the article following I lay out those reasons and explore some of the side issues around cannabis in New Zealand:

  • Low level cannabis offences take up police time, resources and tax payer money unnecessarily
  • The justice system is unnecessarily clogged with the resultant prosecutions from those offences
  • Minister of Justice Andrew Little has announced a probable regime that would be implemented should the referendum return a YES vote, which focuses on reducing harm
  • Recognition of need to address cannabis addiction as medical issue and not a criminal one

The regime that Mr Little has proposed, the regulatory regime would have the following provisions:

  • A minimum age of 20 for purchasing and using cannabis products
  • A ban on all marketing and advertising of cannabis
  • Requires harm minimisation messaging to be on products
  • No public use, but confined to homes and regulated premises
  • Restricts cannabis sales to physical stores
  • Regulations on the potency of cannabis products
  • A person over the age of 20 will be able to grow two cannabis plants on their property
  • Individuals will be able to carry up to 14 grams of dried cannabis in public places

Mr Little says that it will be an education and health based regime for those with addictions, assuming that they are willing to enter a treatment centre.

More critically we need to acknowledge as I have mentioned in the past that the “War on Drugs” has been an abject failure. It has driven the cannabis market underground and in doing so it has enabled growers, synthetic cannabis importers and others wanting commercial gain from growing it to thrive in a market that has no regulation and attracts the worst in society.

One of the more damaging aspects of cannabis in New Zealand and around the world has been the rise of synthetic cannabis or “synnies”. These are much stronger and more debilitating than regular cannabis, and can render users zombie like where they appear to be completely detuned from what is happening around them. Many of the users are some of the most vulnerable elements of society with no family, support networks or means of finding work, their drug use can lead to – in the case of women – being forced into prostitution to earn money.

On the whole I like the regime that Mr Little is proposing to implement if the referendum returns a YES vote. I do have concerns though about cannabis being grown on private properties, due to some of the secondary activities and behaviours that tend to be associated with drug manufacture. Specifically I am thinking of the tendency to have firearms, the construction of structures that will impede lawful surveillance and law enforcement; also the coming and going of people with connections to the criminal underworld, prostitution and gang activity.

So whilst I will be voting YES, I acknowledge that there is more work to be done yet on these reforms and I look forward to seeing what the final plan will look like.

 

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 39


Yesterday was DAY 39 of New Zealand in lock down as we fight the COVID19 pandemic.

For the last 5 weeks and 4 days we have been trying to limit the spread of COVID19 within New Zealand. To do that, the country has had to make substantial sacrifices, including briefly foregoing many of the activities we had come to take for granted. Thus far New Zealand has been very successful in containing COVID19 and restricting its ability to harm our communities. The very vast majority of New Zealanders have been stringent in their compliance with the restrictions and protective measures that have been put in place.

However, there is a small number of irresponsible morons who think that at LEVEL 3 they can have their lives back, that they can start attending parties and do not have to abide by social distancing any more. New Zealand Police in the first few days since LEVEL 3 restrictions came into force have prosecuted 135 people and warned another 342. In the last few days there have been several major incidents where people have not complied with social distancing:

  • A tangi in Christchurch where 100 people turned out, despite being told that only 10 people were allowed
  • A gang party in Christchurch

New Zealand Police need to get tough. New Zealanders are done with playing kind. We have been in LEVEL 4 for 5 weeks and now LEVEL 3 for a week. People cannot claim to not know any more. We have ample evidence both here and abroad of what happens if we are not firm on the safety measures that have been put in place. I propose:

  1. In the first instance a $500 fine payable in one week or  – given the large number of people who live pay check to pay check, the impact in the bank balance and the resulting telling off that they should be getting from their bubble should be enough to make them not do it again
  2. In the second instance if a fine has failed to get the message through, a night in the police cells; should the fine fail to be paid without good reason, the punishment in the second instance is applicable
  3. In the third instance, jail time – if a person is really determined to ignore the laws and put the rest of us in unnecessary danger because all they could think of was themselves, then that person should be held until COVID19 is no longer a danger

Harsh? Well, to be honest, I heard that Australia was putting up $1,000 instant fines, so in that respect, not as harsh as people might think. And there is a simple reason for that. People who breach the rules will have to be accountable to their bubbles when they break them, and I am sure that those bubble members will not be happy at the prospect of LEVEL lasting beyond 11 May 2020.

Addressing crime in New Zealand


My previous article explored some of the reasons for crime happening in New Zealand. This article explores how to address it.

The idea of what constitutes justice in New Zealand is one that has been controversial since the country was founded. Equally controversial is how sentencing regime under which judges hand down sentences is administered. The question of whether to jail or not is hotly debated as New Zealand often looks to the United States or overseas for ideas instead of coming up with our own.

But jail is just one tool that can be used in New Zealand, and nor is it – as we shall see below – necessarily the best sentence for many convicts. Jailing is expensive and resource consuming. Some prisoners for the first time in their lives might be experiencing order – a clean bed, shower, regular meals and supervision. It is indeed sad and quite wrong that a place of state imposed punishment somehow becomes the preferred accommodation of prisoners. And we as a nation have to look at how it came to be that.

But jail is at risk of being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, when solutions are needed to stop people falling down that cliff.

In thinking of how we might address our jail population, I envisage only those who pose a direct and immediate threat to society being imprisoned. I am thinking of Malcolm Rewa, Steven Williams. For offences such as drunk driving an overhaul of how the demerit point system works to enable “residual points” that accumulate if more than one such offence is committed might be better, with harsher sentencing such as jail being restricted to those offences that kill, injure or damage property. When those residual points reach a national limit, that person has to permanently surrender their driver licence.

In many instances it is not the jails or the police that are at fault. Rather it is the courts, whose interpretation of the law, has become archaic. The police are the ones who look for the offender, bring them to trial and collect the evidence. The courts are where the trial is held and the accused is found not/guilty, as well as sentenced. It is this last part of the courts role and responsibilities where the New Zealand justice system fails the public on the issue of sentencing. Judges fail to jail that small percentage of criminals who are simply too dangerous to stay in society, and many of the ones that are there in their place, might not be best suited to jail.

In the first instance, I would be happy if there were considerably expanded community programmes where prisoners are put to work in the community. Some will call it abuse of labour, but when prisoners are released from prison they will be expected to somehow live outside of the institution that released them. That means finding somewhere to live; finding a job with an income that can sustain them in terms of the basic necessities, such as food, clothing, any medical assistance, power, rent and transport. In preparation for life on the outside would it not be best to have them in some sort of prison based preparatory programme?

Many prisoners are quite skilled. They might have been in another time before they derailed builders, farmers, tradespeople and maybe forestry workers. New Zealand is screaming for more trades people and labourers. The safer ones who are not going to behave like Mr Williams, the man who murdered Coral Burrowes, and try to harm their fellow inmates, might appreciate that someone thinks enough of them to provide them an opportunity for redemption. Prison might be their night-time lock up, but during the day, they could be helping the communities that they damaged.

A second idea would be to look at Finland, where authorities have adopted a quite radical approach to jail. Not being able to envisage this myself, I do have questions such as how well would such ideas work here? Would the New Zealand public accept such a radical change in philosophy, and how well conditioned for post-jail life would it leave the prisoners?

A third idea would be to either legalize or decriminalize cannabis. I have not seriously discussed the legalization or decriminalization of cannabis here, but it needs to be made clear now that there is a difference between the two:

  1. Decriminalization in this instance is the removal or loosening of criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of cannabis – it has the effect of telling the authorities to look the other way
  2. Legalization is the removal of laws that criminalize the possession and/or personal use of cannabis; the authorities treat it is as a substance that can be regulated and taxed

Both have their merits and both have their downsides. The legalization of cannabis might be the best move, but it would involve substantial preparation – the criminal laws, the medical framework for treating such addictions and their social, medical, legal and economic consequences would all need to be revisited. The judicial, court and police systems would need to be reoriented. Before that, it is possible we may see a move to decriminalize cannabis.

 

Causes of crime in New Zealand


It is quite fair to say that the New Zealand sentencing laws have multiple flaws to them that undermine not only the course of justice, but in some respects actually cause new injustices to occur. The cracks in the social net designed to keep people out of crime are so numerous that systemic failure is a real possibility and would occur when a critical mass of issues comes to a head causing a large scale collapse of services and functions.

Among these problems are:

  • A failing of the socio-economic conditions necessary to discourage criminal activity in the first place
  • A failure of the justice system to punish convicted offenders appropriately
  • Offenders occur because it suits the lifestyle that they have become accustomed to
  • Massive growth in the market for illegal substances – a seller can make $4,000 a week selling illegal substances in Whangarei
  • Break down of the family unit and a lack of role models for boys
  • Underfunding/scrapping of social welfare programmes causing them to fail or be wound up
  • Systemic underfunding and resourcing of the mental health sector

So how do these factors cause the sentencing regime to fail? There are numerous reasons.

  1. Whilst most New Zealanders are working, tax paying, law abiding people, there is a section of society that have no empathy with or understanding of societal norms. They come from broken families that have no had proper jobs, or have been involved with drugs or criminal elements – to them the law and the people who enforce it are suspect
  2. Despite legislation passing through Parliament in 2010 called the Truth in Sentencing Act, which was designed to make offenders do the full sentence handed down, sentences are becoming increasingly erratic and are rarely suitable for the crime/s committed
  3. It is obvious that the War on Drug has failed when drug dealers can make more money in a week than many New Zealanders do in a month – flow on effects from drug use can include being not suitable for a wide range of jobs
  4. A lack of role models for children with absentee parents or from a family where education and work are low priorities. They might be constantly working, or disinterested in their children’s development
  5. Welfare programmes have suffered from funding not keeping pace with inflation, but also constantly tightened criteria to eligible for assistance in the first place, with the result being more people are either getting cut off or finding the proverbial goal posts have shifted
  6. Mental health issues create highly unstable people whose symptoms may range from acute stress to being prone to physical violence or even killing – several cases have occurred in the last few years where either people not being treated have turned violent; caregiver gone to jail for mercy killing

New Zealand is going to have to address these issues collectively and individually in the near future or risk this nation becoming something other than the tourist friendly paradise many non New Zealanders believe us to be. Soon there could be significant costs to tax payers and companies alike fixing a problem that in some respects everyone is partially to blame for, but which nobody wants to come up with a comprehensive solution.

The case for a cannabis referendum


I personally support a referendum. I think it would be too divisive to pass legislation without first knowing whether that is even what New Zealanders want. And given the propensity of New Zealand politicians for partisan politics, I might reasonably hazard a guess that if such legislation DID get passed through any backlash would be seized upon as New Zealanders objecting to cannabis.

And here would be where the politics start. Let us suppose that that is what happened: a law gets passed through Parliament, catching most people unawares, someone finds out and goes to the media full of indignation about it. The legislation itself might be perfectly fine, but the fact that a party is attempting to force it through Parliament without going to “we the people” has suddenly caused a major ruckus. Being a small country, within a short time the whole of New Zealand knows that cannabis laws are being pushed through Parliament. One major party or the other is demanding a referendum to force the issue into the open where everyone can see it.

Before the referendum, we would need to have a formal debate about it where someone speaks for those who support cannabis and someone to speak for those who are against it. A medical practitioner, legal practitioner, a police officer and a Member of Parliament would would be my preferred composition of the panel to talk about the issues that society might be faced with.

The referendum would need to address some thorny issues, such as what forms of cannabis are going to be voted on. What will the question be? Will it be a simple majority of 51% vs 49% or will there need to be a super majority to ensure the vote is clear of any obstacles?

Some people might question the timing of a cannabis referendum. I do not. It is very clear to me that the “War on Drugs” both here and abroad has failed to achieve its goals and that the only responsible thing to do is to wind it up. It is also clear to me that the support for medical cannabis has swung substantially in favour of allowing its use for purely medical reasons. In saying that, we need to acknowledge the hugely damaging consequences of synthetic cannabis which is causing major problems both in New Zealand and abroad.

But the movement in New Zealand is growing. I personally am not sure whether legalization or decriminalization is better and to what extent it should happen. In the United States the number of people going to jail for being in possession of small amounts of cannabis has led to a burgeoning jail population. Minor criminals end up meeting major league players and becoming hardened criminals, some with a vendetta against society who come out more dangerous than they went in.

Video clips on Youtube of people who have been destroyed by synthetics show zombie like beings in weird postures, completely oblivious to what is happening around them, are disturbing. Sure there is a growing problem with synthetics in New Zealand as well, but for someone completely trashed on synthetic cannabis, a jail cell or – as would potentially happen in Singapore – execution is not the answer. A rehab clinic is. There is no place for executing people and the jail cells should be spared for the chemists (the ones who make the synthetics), the importers, the dealers.

But if we agree that a referendum on cannabis should only deal with low powered product that might induce a brief high, but nothing else, then I see a case for a referendum around it.