9 Feb 2017

Decriminalisation off the cards but users not worried

9:38 am on 9 February 2017

Decriminalising recreational cannabis use has been ruled off the government agenda despite medicinal cannabis changes - but police are already turning a blind eye, a user says.

The Ministry of Health estimates about 130,000 New Zealanders use cannabis at least once a week, and in a 2015 survey one in three of them admitted driving stoned.

Photo: 123RF

Yesterday, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne announced that medicinal cannabis products will no longer require ministerial sign-off, with responsibility for approval shifting to the Ministry of Health.

But that was not likely to be a springboard for reforming the laws around recreational cannabis use, he said.

Despite that, recreational users said police were letting low-level use slide anyway.

A 27-year-old who spoke to RNZ, who smokes cannabis once or twice a week, said he supported decriminalisation at the very least.

"My usage is primarily at home, in my own house, or at a place with friends," the man said.

"I'm not smoking and driving, I'm not operating heavy machinery, I'm not doing any of the things the disclaimer on the box wouldn't be telling you to do."

Where he lived, the police turned a blind eye to low-level cannabis use, and he had never been worried about being caught, he said.

"The only time I've ever been in a situation where the police have stopped a group of people is when a friend of mine, who's South American, was stopped by the police for publicly urinating and was then searched. They found cannabis on him at that point, which he got diversion for."

Auckland criminal lawyer Scott Leith said he had noticed a major reduction in the number of people being prosecuted for simple possession offences.

"They're dealt with at the police station, they're issued with their pre-charge warning after a supervisor's input and they don't enter the criminal justice system as a result."

Cases that involved a commercial element, like possession of cannabis for supply, or supply of cannabis, were still ending up in court, he said.

There may not be a need to decriminalise cannabis, if the justice system already recognised there was a difference between those two types of cases, Mr Leith said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the police said their approach to cannabis had not changed.

Police officers had discretion on how they dealt with a range of matters, including cannabis offences, on a case-by-case basis, the statement said.

Peter Dunne said there was work underway as part of the national drug policy around more proportionate responses when it came to sentencing people for cannabis-related offences.

"If you talk to the police about priorities - I'll give you an example - people who use cannabis for medicinal reasons, the police don't take any interest in.

"We have have a sort of effective de-penalisation when it comes to low-level use of cannabis, whether that will be more formalised in the future, I don't know."

Labour's health spokesperson, Annette King, said changes to the medicinal cannabis regime shouldn't be seen as a step towards decriminalisation of cannabis, and the two issues should not be confused.

"I think part of the problem in the slowness of getting a decision on this issue [medicinal cannabis] has been mixing up medicinal cannabis with recreational use. I think there's been nervousness by the government that it would be seen to be decriminalising or legalising recreational use."

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