Most New Zealanders support decriminalising cannabis, poll suggests

A new poll suggests most New Zealanders support decriminalising cannabis.

Just over 48 percent of voters supported legalising cannabis in a referendum held last year.

A poll conducted by market research firm UMR for the Helen Clark Foundation found an additional 20 percent voted no but said they think cannabis should be decriminalised. The poll was of 833 people who voted in the referendum; 49 percent were in favour of legalisation - mirroring the actual vote - while 30 percent thought the current law should stay the same or get tougher.

This makes a total of 69 percent who either supported legalisation or would support decriminalisation.

Foundation executive director Kathy Errington said this proved there was a strong public appetite for drug law change.

"The poll really shows how much New Zealand culture has changed in their attitude to drug policy and that we are, as a country, moving away from an approach to drugs that is rooted in criminal law and prohibition."

She said decriminalising cannabis would achieve many of the health-related outcomes hoped for in the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.

"It depends how you do it and the details will matter a lot but what it gets at is that one of the key injustices that hasn't been resolved about our cannabis laws, which is the unequal burden of criminalisation, that still very much needs to be addressed."

Errington said, in particular, the unequal impacts were worn by young people and Māori.

"The referendum may have failed but that problem remains and something should be done about it ... this poll shows a lot of people are deeply concerned about that issue."

She said steps taken by the Government so far, including the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act, had not gone far enough.

"While the overall number of prosecutions has decreased somewhat ... inside that, the disproportion of Māori being effected has not changed at all.

"Before the amendment, you had 35 percent of charges being for Māori and that's exactly the same now. So if one of your motivations for wanting health-based approaches to drugs is to see better outcomes for Māori, then you need to do something else."

NZ Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm said cannabis convictions did nothing to deter use and the current punitive approach was not reducing cannabis harm.

"Young people, Māori and men bear the burden of cannabis convictions and while the police and ministers are committed to trying to improve the situation, people continue to face convictions.

"We also have an untenable situation with thousands of patients who cannot access medicinal cannabis products. Many of these are falling foul of the law by making their own products or purchasing on the black market, which decriminalisation would go some way to addressing."

She said there was a global shift away from a "war on drugs" mentality because it was not working.

"Evidence has shown that where decriminalisation of drug use and a raft of health interventions have been put in place, such as in Portugal, harmful drug use has declined, including among young people. In Canada, which legalised cannabis in October 2018, use by young people has gone down and rates for regular daily adult use have remained unchanged.

"New Zealand law relies on police discretion to decide whether a person should be convicted of a low-level drug offence or not. We are grateful to hear the minister of health and minister of police are undertaking further investigation into this, because it isn't working. We ask that it not be left to discretion and for a health-based approach to be taken."