By Helen Clark

In New Zealand, cannabis is classified as an illegal drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. Its possession, use and supply are subject variously to penalties ranging in severity from fines to many years of imprisonment. On Wednesday, the Helen Clark Foundation released a report which sets out the case for legalising and regulating cannabis. New Zealanders have the opportunity to vote for that in a referendum next year.

A growing number of jurisdictions have been moving away from the prohibitionist approach promoted by the international conventions. Canada, Uruguay and several states in the United States have legalised the possession, use and supply of cannabis. Other jurisdictions have decriminalised personal possession and use, but not supply. The proposal to be put to the New Zealand referendum will be to legalise and regulate, with the exact form that takes yet to be determined.

A recent amendment to New Zealand’s Misuse of Drugs Act has directed police only to prosecute those using drugs when there is a “public interest” in doing so. The government has been clear that it wants to take a health and wellbeing-based approach to those who use drugs. The emphasis on police discretion, however, means that prosecutions for cannabis use and possession would still remain possible, and prosecutions for supply would continue as they do now.

The time has come for New Zealand to face up to the widespread use and supply of cannabis in the country and to legalise it and regulate it accordingly. No useful purpose is served by maintaining its illegal status. A “yes” vote in the 2020 referendum will be positive for social justice and equity, contribute to reducing the country’s excessively large prison population, and enable those health issues associated with cannabis to be dealt with upfront.