Decriminalizing marijuana | The Jackal

19 Dec 2011

Decriminalizing marijuana

I realize that this post is somewhat redundant, being that John Key has said marijuana will not be decriminalized while he is Prime Minister. This position is somewhat idiotic... especially when you consider the following evidence concerning the overal benefits to society decriminalization would facilitate.

To clarify the boundaries of the discussion, I am not talking about decriminalization for youth and I am not claiming there are no adverse health effects... I am however taking an in-depth look at what decriminalization would mean for New Zealand based on evidence gathered here and abroad.

My goal is to present factual information to try and progress the current stagnated debate and remove some misconceptions concerning decriminalization. I should probably clarify that I'm a non-smoker and have no vested interest in seeing marijuana decriminalized.

Now that I have got the introduction out of the way... here's my argument on why marijuana should be decriminalized.
Mental health issues surrounding marijuana:

Some people have argued that marijuana causes mental ill-health in those who use it. This is perhaps the most important topic of discussion, being that 20% of adult New Zealanders will experience a mental health disorder. The question is does marijuana use result in mental ill-health or do people's pre-existing mental ill health lead to their drug and/or alcohol abuse?

Here’s what a few of the relevant studies say:

Summary: While at present there remains much that is not known about the causes of comorbidity, there is increasing evidence to suggest that simple causal hypotheses may not easily explain the association. There is a broad convergence of risk factors for both problematic substance use and mental disorders; a plausible hypothesis for the comorbidity between these disorders is that substance use and mental disorders (mood disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders and psychotic disorders) share common risk factors and life pathways. A number of longitudinal cohort and twin studies have explicitly examined this hypothesis and have concluded that common factors explain the comorbidity between alcohol, tobacco and cannabis use (Lynskey et al., 1998); dependence on different illicit drugs (Tsuang et al., 1998); alcohol and nicotine dependence (True et al., 1999); and nicotine dependence and major depression (Fergusson et al., 1996; K. Kendler et al., 1993).

Substance Use Among The Mentally Ill – Prevalence, Reasons for Use, and Effects on Illness (PDF Sorry, Pay-walled):

Substance use among a random sample of mentally ill, community-based patients was examined. Current use was found to have declined substantially from a high lifetime prevalence, and a family history of substance abuse was associated with moderate to heavy use. No association was found between heavy substance use and elevated psychopathology, hospitalization, or medication noncompliance. Hospital admissions and some symptoms were less prevalent among users preferring marijuana.

The question really does come down to a health issue… whereby those with a mental health condition who are using illicit drugs are less likely to come forward to seek proper medical assistance when a criminal conviction hangs over their heads. Decriminalization would alleviate this problem.

Conclusion: Marijuana activates reward centers in the brain, however it is not mentally addictive. Those who display an insatiable appetite for marijuana are probably suffering addictive personality disorder. Marijuana does not cause mental ill-health, however more people suffering from a mental health disorder self medicate with marijuana.

The effect of legal drugs on the use of illegal drugs:

If alcohol was an illegal drug, its classification under the Misuse of Drugs Act, using the new 2001 evidence-based criteria, would make it a class B drug. Alcohol has been demonstrated to have the harm equivalent of a Class B drug (High Risk to Public Health), which puts it in the same category as morphine, fantasy, ecstasy and d-amphetamine. Marijuana is a Class C drug.

Here’s the Institute of Alcoholic studies (2007) research into Alcohol and Mental Health (PDF):

A UK study (Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire) found the majority of patients presenting with first episode psychosis reported substance use. Reported substance use in this population was twice that of the general population. Cannabis and alcohol were the two most frequently reported forms of substance use/abuse, 51% of the sample meeting standard criteria for cannabis abuse/dependence and 43% meeting the criteria for alcohol abuse/dependence at some point in their life. 
American research suggests that overall, the prevalence of alcohol dependence is almost twice as high in those with psychiatric disorders as in the general population. One US study found that 19.9% of the general population had one or more psychiatric disorders, but in those with alcohol abuse or dependence the figure rose to 36.6%.

Therefore the symptomatic qualities for alcohol use by those with a predisposition to mental ill-health is relatively the same as marijuana... meaning those who have a predisposition to mental ill-health are just as likely to use alcohol to self medicate. The study continues:

The odds of being a smoker, a hazardous drinker or a drug user increase whenever one of the others co-exists. For example, heavy smokers have a twelve-fold increase in the odds of being drug dependent and those scoring above 16 on the AUDIT score a six-fold increase. However, age is also a major risk factor for drug dependence, with the youngest group having thirty-fold greater odds than the oldest group.

Conclusion: Reducing the availability of legal drugs by limiting outlets and increasing cost would also reduce people with a predisposition for mental ill-health to self medicate. This in turn would reduce the amount of consumption of marijuana and the negative social impact from problem users.

Drug education:

People with a predisposition for mental illness are more likely to have addictive personality disorder. Such afflictions usually develop well before people are introduced to alcohol or drugs. Programmes developed specifically to educate people about the risk of drug abuse are highly beneficial to society.

Here is what the Otago University study says:

In general, studies of drug education programmes have found these programmes to be most effective in increasing knowledge about the risks of drug abuse [79]. However this increased level of knowledge does not always translate in reductions of drug use behaviours [83]. An example of these issues has been provided by the evaluation of the US drug education programme Drug Abuse Resistant Education (DARE). This programme brings police officers into the class to educate young people about the risks of drug abuse. Evaluations have found that the programme is effective in increasing student knowledge but that the effects decrease with time and do not appear to alter later risks of drug abuse [85-89].

Conclusion: Increasing peoples knowledge reduces drug use, but without a continuation of early childhood education programmes, results decline over time. Decriminalization coupled with proper health and educational services reduces the amount of people self medicating and abusing drugs

The cost of keeping marijuana criminalized:

The latest Department of Corrections Annual Report (PDF) shows:

The total revenue spent for incarceration was $1,176,097,000. That works out to be $172,397.68 per year for each of the 6,822 prisoners for 2010/11. That’s also not the actual cost for Corrections with total taxpayer funds running at nearly $2.2 billion to 30 June.

Keep in mind that the 2.2 billion the taxpayer gave to the Department of Justice this year does not include Police or Court costs. Factor those into the lost productivity from restrictions placed on people who are prosecuted, the health consequences from people not coming forward to receive rehabilitation because of fear of prosecution, the cost to society because people undertake crime to be able to afford the $500 per ounce*, the cost to society because the gangs retain (often with violence) a major income stream that funds other crimes and the lost capital because it's not being taxed… and I think the financial side of the argument to decriminalize is settled.

*This might be an incorrect estimate of the current average price of marijuana.

Conclusion: The money saved from decriminalization can best be used for health and drug education, this would reduce overall consumption and therefore decrease the amount of young people being introduced to marijuana. A defined age limit would also help.

Decriminalization and consumption:

Some people have argued that decriminalization leads to increased consumption of marijuana. In fact South Australia's marijuana use increased from 26% to 36% after decriminalization.

However marijuana use has been increasing worldwide, which is the reason some places that have instigated decriminalization have shown increased usage of marijuana.

Here’s what the UN World Drug Report (15MB PDF) shows:

Global cannabis herb seizures increased over the 2006-2008 period (+23%), especially in South America, reaching levels last reported in 2004. Global cannabis resin seizures increased markedly over the 2006-2008 period (+62%) and clearly exceeded the previous peak of 2004. Large increases in cannabis resin seizures in 2008 were reported from the Near and Middle East region, as well as from Europe and Africa.

The 10% increase shown in South Australia is well below the worldwide increase of 23%. Here’s what New Zealand's Parliamentary Services says:

Decriminalization of cannabis in the Netherlands, Australia and the USA has not led to significant increases in cannabis use, but has led to law enforcement cost savings.

Conclusion: There is an overal reduction in consumption after decriminalization, especially when education and rehabilitation programs are also implemented.

Criminality and consumption:

The Massey University Conviction and Sentencing for Cannabis Use Offences in New Zealand report (PDF) shows:

In 1999 68.9% of people surveyed had tried cannabis by the age of 21... In 2011 80% of those aged 21 had tried cannabis.

Clearly the current laws are not working to reduce introduction or consumption of cannabis. The law is simply being ignored and costing us taxpayers many millions of dollars.

The presumed benefit of the criminalisation of cannabis possession is the deterrence of cannabis use. There is, however, little evidence of a strong deterrent effect. Substantial increases in marijuana use occurred in the 1960s and 1970s despite the application of criminal penalties for cannabis possession both in the U.S. (7, 23, 44) and in Australia (17). These trends in cannabis use do not constitute conclusive evidence regarding the lack of a deterrent effect, as it is not known whether rates of use might have increased even more if cannabis possession had not been prohibited. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that nonusers rarely cite fear of legal consequences as a reason for their nonuse (34, 44). Rather, the simple lack of interest or fear of adverse health consequences are the most commonly given reasons for abstention from cannabis use (33, 44). There is no discernable trend in perceived availability of cannabis despite high levels of drug enforcement in the U.S. (30, 31, 52). Criminological research on the deterrence of other forms of deviant behaviour indicates that deterrence does not generally occur if the risk of detection and punishment is low. This is clearly the case with cannabis use (23). In Canada, which until the late 1980s had the highest per capita rates of arrest for cannabis possession in the world, it was estimated that less than one per cent of users and one tenth of one per cent of use incidents were detected by the police (33).
Thus, in both Australia and the United States, laws prohibiting cannabis possession entail considerable enforcement and social costs, yet they appear to have little impact on deterring cannabis use. In the 1970s 11 U.S. states enacted “decriminalisation” laws which reduced the penalties of cannabis possession to a fine only, and more recently, several jurisdictions in Australia have enacted similar measures. In 1987, South Australia introduced a “civil penalty” approach to minor cannabis offences (including personal use and cultivation), which involves the issuing of expiation notices or “on-the-spot” fines to detected offenders. In the 1990’s, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory have followed with the introduction of similar expiation schemes. More recently, Victoria implemented a system of cautions for minor cannabis offenders in 1998 and Western Australia has since followed with a similar scheme. 
Impacts on patterns of cannabis use: The potential impact of the introduction of the expiation approach upon levels and patterns of cannabis use in South Australia has been assessed in several drug use surveys, with each analysis adding more recent data to the picture (eg, 11, 18, 19). None of the studies have found an increase in cannabis use in the South Australian community which is attributable to the introduction of the Cannabis Expiation Notice scheme. Lifetime use of cannabis did increase significantly in South Australia from 26% in 1985 to 36% in 1995, but similar increases were observed over the same period in jurisdictions with a total prohibition approach to cannabis, such as Victoria and Tasmania. Similarly, there was an Australia-wide increase in rates of weekly cannabis use over the ten year period from 1985 to 1995, and South Australia did not differ from the rest of Australia on this indicator (19). A comparative study of minor cannabis offenders in South Australia and Western Australia concluded that both the CEN scheme and the more punitive prohibition approach had little deterrent effect upon cannabis users (3). Offenders from both jurisdictions reported that an expiation notice or conviction had little or no impact upon subsequent cannabis and other drug use, and most subjects reported that even if they were caught again, they would not stop using the drug (3).
Conclusion: Keeping marijuana use a criminal offense does not reduce consumption.

A humanitarian reason to decriminalize marijuana:

The cannabinoid receptors that every human being has in their brains effects a number of physiologic systems, particularly beneficial for those who have ADHD, nausea and chronic pain. THC has even been shown to induce the regression or eradication of malignant brain tumors.

Marijuana is a medicine, and like many medicines some people choose to abuse it. Their abuse and peoples ignorance should not allow the medicine to be restricted.

Decriminalization allows people with serious illnesses like cancer and rheumatoid arthritis to use one of the best pain medications known to mankind.


Decriminalization reduces adverse health consequences by allowing people to come forward without fear of criminal prosecution to get the medical assistance they require. The funds saved from decriminalization can better be spent on health and education programs, which in turn would reduce consumption of legal and illegal substances due to the comorbidity relationship.