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Call For Expanded Cannabis Decriminalisation

Prison Watchdogs Call For Expanded Cannabis Decriminalisation

The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill doesn’t go far enough, says criminal justice research group People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA).

The Bill, which is currently going through the select committee, decriminalises cannabis use for terminally ill people. Supply of cannabis remains illegal, and people who use cannabis and are not terminally ill can still be convicted. This includes people who are chronically ill, who may use cannabis to improve their quality of life by easing symptoms.

“This Bill’s ambitions are so narrow and conservative that it will have very little effect at reducing the harm associated with drug use,” says PAPA spokesperson Emilie Rākete. “The only way to substantially reduce that harm is to fully decriminalise supply and use of all illicit drugs.”

PAPA wrote a submission to the Health Committee with three recommendations - extend the statutory defense to chronically ill people, expunge past criminal convictions for use of cannabis for medicinal purposes, and start thinking seriously about full decriminalisation.

“People who use drugs may lose their jobs, lose their homes, and damage their relationships with loved ones. People who are sent to prison will absolutely experience all of those things,” says Rākete. “Addicts need medical and psychological support to manage their addiction, not to be shoveled into prison cells.”

“Drug use itself does not necessarily lead to addiction, health issues, or poor living conditions. Rather, poor living conditions and mental health issues can lead people to using and becoming addicted to drugs. Just as being in prison increases recidivism, it can also lead to increased drug abuse. The despair, alienation, and isolation that incarcerated people are subjected to creates a world from which drug use is an escape.”

PAPA is calling for the government to reinvest in addiction treatment services rather than in prisons, citing the success of nations like Portugal. After Portugal decriminalised possession and supply of drugs, and provided social services to addicts instead of incarcerating them, the rates of drug use declined.

“Not all use of drugs is bad. We understand this in terms of alcohol use. The message of the public service announcement, ‘It’s not the drinking, it’s how we’re drinking,’ works for alcohol use in the same way that it works for cannabis and other illicit drugs,” says Rākete. “We shouldn’t imprison drug addicts for the same reason we don’t imprison alcoholics — it doesn’t help.”

According to Rākete, supply of cannabis must also be decriminalised. “When supply is illegal, supply of drugs cannot be regulated. Drug users are forced to obtain drugs from illegal and potentially dangerous sources, and the stigma associated with drug use is reinforced.”

“If we were taking drug and alcohol addiction seriously, more than a mere 5% of prisoners would be given access to treatment for addiction.,” says Rākete. “Decriminalising drugs is a community care response that can actually solve the social problems causing addiction. That’s what New Zealanders deserve.”


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