Government advice on cannabis decriminalisation amounts to just five bullet-points

Newshub can reveal the Government has received very little advice on decriminalising cannabis - amounting to just five bullet-points in a Cabinet paper. 

Since 2019, the only material the Ministry of Justice has provided the Government regarding decriminalising cannabis is contained in a small section of a Cabinet paper about the 2020 cannabis referendum

After Kiwis narrowly voted down legalising cannabis 50.7-48.4, the conversation moved to decriminalisation. It came after a poll conducted by market research firm UMR for the Helen Clark Foundation found more support for decriminalisation than legalisation

But information provided to Newshub by the Ministry of Justice shows the Government has not received any additional advice on decriminalisation since the cannabis referendum. 

Newshub requested all advice to the Government since 2019 about decriminalisation. The Ministry of Justice confirmed that aside from the five-bullet points in the Cabinet paper, all other communications on cannabis have been about legalisation. 

"We had a referendum last year; it gave a very clear signal that New Zealanders were not ready for a greater level of liberalisation," Health Minister Andrew Little told Newshub.

"We are, however, working to make sure the way our recreational drugs regime operates is on a health-basis, not a criminalising basis, and we are striving to achieve that."

Health Minister Andrew Little.
Health Minister Andrew Little. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

The 2020 Cabinet paper prepared for the Government ahead of the referendum says decriminalising use, possession and private cultivation of cannabis would be "particularly significant" for Māori who have borne the brunt of prosecutions. 

But the Cabinet paper also notes that decriminalisation would not address the issue of supply. It would leave supply unregulated, impeding the ability to control quality of products.

A model of decriminalisation is applied in the Netherlands, where authorities are required to refrain from enforcing the law against supply where no harm is evident.

In 2019 the Government amended the Misuse of Drugs Act to strengthen police discretion on drug possession, which the Opposition described as decriminalisation by stealth.

A review of the law change is underway to find out if it has made a difference.

Ministry of Justice data shows the number of people convicted for cannabis offences has dropped over the last 10 years, from 2906 in 2011 to 644 last year. Since the police discretion law change in 2019, cannabis convictions have dropped by 142.

Chlöe Swarbrick's decriminalisation pursuit

The small amount of advice on decriminalisation hasn't deterred Green Party drug law spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick. The Auckland Central MP led the campaign to legalise cannabis in the lead-up to the election. 

"I mean, it's obviously disappointing there's not more discussion writ large about amendment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, let alone repeal and replacement - something that was suggested by two reports that the Government commissioned," she told Newshub. 

Swarbrick was referring to Turuki! Turuki! Moving Together, a report which recommended regulation of personal use of cannabis.

It came off the back of the 2018 Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry, which endorsed liberalisation, noting that "personal use of cannabis should be legalised and regulated".

"I think it's certainly unfortunate but I think it's reflective of the highly politicised ground that we're having these debates on and ultimately that comes down to a question of political willpower," said Swarbrick. 

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick.
Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said earlier this year she "shares the view of many" that possessing cannabis should not be a crime.

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said around the same time that if decriminalisation of cannabis came up as a Member's Bill, Labour would treat it as a conscience vote. That means Labour MPs - who hold a majority in Parliament - could vote in favour of it. 

National's justice spokesperson Simon Bridges says his party is open to discussion.

"National would discuss any proposed legislation surrounding decriminalising cannabis as a caucus. But we don't support the Government's current moves to decriminalise drugs by stealth," he told Newshub.

"If the Government wants to decriminalise drugs it should win the support of Parliament and the public. National supports both greater rehabilitation and tougher sentences.

"Treatment and deterrence should go hand in hand. National will not support any moves that will see increased drug harm in our neighbourhoods."

ACT leader David Seymour supported legalisation.

"I think decriminalisation is a halfway house. I think that legalisation is a more defensible position because decriminalisation means that kids at Otago who want to go on their OE don't go to jail but poor brown kids that sell it to them end up getting punished," he told Newshub.

"So I'm not in favour of decriminalisation. You either want to ban it or legalise it. I think there's increasing evidence that legalisation doesn't lead to greater use but what it does do is it means that we get a safer alternative and we get more information and less harm."

Swarbrick confirmed to Newshub that rather than drafting her own Member's Bill to address decriminalisation, there were "ongoing discussions" for co-sponsored, cross-party legislation.

Swarbrick said the Greens were working on something "genuinely cross-party with MPs across the House", which could be achieved by using a new rule that allows 61 non-ministerial MPs to get legislation debated in Parliament.

The new rule means if an MP can wrangle support from 61 non-ministerial colleagues the Bill can go straight onto Parliament's order paper, bypassing the traditional Member's Bill ballot, where proposed laws can often sit for years waiting to be pulled.

"I don't think I ever see myself giving up on something like justice in the space of drug law reform," Swarbrick said. "If we want to do the right thing and if the Government wants to follow its own advice that it commissioned..."