Public support for cannabis law reform is growing, and it seems inevitable that it will happen at some point. It’s no longer a question of should we change the law, what should we change it to and how soon?
Enter Dr Chris Wilkins of Massey University’s SHORE research center. He organised a drug policy conference last week in Auckland to help inform the debate and move it along. He has also proposed a new model for cannabis law reform in New Zealand: Cannabis social clubs in the form of Incorporated Societies (CIS), which would purchase cannabis products from a new Government agency, which has in turn licensed a variety of producers. The full version can be read at the New Zealand Medical Journal (behind a paywall) or watch the youtube video here.
The advantages are numerous:
- cannabis users can join the social club of their choice and have safe legal access to cannabis products;
- the cannabis products sold through clubs will be known strengths and dosages and free of harmful residues;
- cannabis social clubs are not-for-profit and will have social objectives such as providing harm reduction information to their members;
- clubs will only be accessible to adults aged over 18;
- CIS clubs could be established with only small tweaks to the licensing provisions of the Misuse of Drugs Act and the Incorporated Societies Act;
- the government cannabis agency collects revenue which can be used to offset the costs related to law enforcement, drug treatment and education;
- the agency can on-sell the cannabis to the Social Clubs at a price that is a better deal than the black market while detering excessive consumption;
- health promotion messages can be displayed on packaging and at the point of sale;
- cannabis from the social clubs will be distinguishable from illicit cannabis as they will be processed in some way (for example they could be ready rolled joints with logos and watermarks, child-proof vials of known-strength cannabis oil, lozenges made with fixed profiles of active cannabinoids, or pre-ground flowers ready for vaping);
- police can monitor licensed clubs while being better resourced to tackle any illicit sales.
This is a neat, cleverly thought out model that will satisfy the greatest number of concerns, bring in opponents, and creates very few problems compared to other models. Importantly, it gives us something to talk about. An idea to kick around and test out. It shows us what legalisation could look like in New Zealand. Is this how we want it?
My main concern is the proposed monthly limit of 28 grams (one ounce). That’s sufficient for most people, but it won’t be enough for heavy users and many medical users, who consume the largest amount but may be forced to abandon the legal social club system. Medical users are 42% of all cannabis users, or one in twenty people, and surveys of patients in US states where medical cannabis is legal show an average daily use of 1 to 5 grams, or 150 grams per month. Whatever we change the law to, it needs to minimise the size of the black market.
I’ve known Dr Wilkins for twenty years – his PhD used data from Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party members – and over the years we’ve had plenty of robust discussions about the options for cannabis law reform. I like to think I’ve alleviated some of his entirely valid concerns around the implications of making cannabis legal. I asked him why there was a limit at all, when there is no limit to the amount of alcohol or tobacco people can purchase. The answer was to be consistent with Uruguay, which has set a 28g monthly limit for cannabis club members. However in Uruguay cannabis consumers can also choose to grow their own or buy cannabis from pharmacies.
One of the world’s foremost experts in cannabis social clubs was in Auckland last week for a drug policy conference organised by Dr Wilkins and his team at Massey University. I talked to Prof. Dr. Tom Decorte, who has studied cannabis social clubs in Belgium, Spain and Uruguay at J Day in Auckland’s beautiful Albert Park. Under majestic century-old trees and surrounded by thousands of people openly consuming cannabis, I introduced Tom Decorte to two pioneers of cannabis social clubs in New Zealand. Dakta Green ran The Daktory while Jeanette Saxby operated the High Tea Cafe, both in West Auckland. Both have recently regained their freedom after being given custodial sentences for their part in the clubs. Tom Decorte told me that cannabis social clubs cannot solve the problems of the black market in isolation. “They are part of the solution. There must be the social clubs, there must be the home cultivation, and there must be the pharmacies.”
Dr Wilkins agrees. In a follow up email he told me “I think it would be consistent with overall principals of the approach to allow home cultivation without sale.” He also emphasised to me that the CIS model he outlined in the NZ Medical Journal is open to refinement, and suggestions for how to make it work better are welcome. I think it would be a huge improvement if medical users, their caregivers, and people who consume more than one ounce per month can also obtain it from pharmacies or grow their own.
The CIS model can be made better but there’s nothing I couldn’t live with. In the post-prohibition era, we’ll all need to make some compromises if we are to reach a consensus for law reform. What do you think? Leave a comment below, or head over to youtube – Dr Wilkins will be keeping an eye on the comments which he anticipates “could be really useful to develop the regime further.”