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A halfway house is a place to stop midway on a journey. In the context of drug law reform, “decriminalisation” is such a midway point, being the place that sits between prohibition at one end of the drug law spectrum and full legalisation at the other. This week, data released to the New Zealand Herald confirmed that the attempt to formalise decriminalisation in 2019 has had little impact on the rates of charging for low level cannabis offences, arguably defeating the purpose of the amendment, hailed by its sponsor Chloe Swarbrick as the “most transformational change to our drug law in this country in over 30 years”.
Legalisation would give clarity as to the status of cannabis. No one could be charged, convicted or imprisoned for use or possession per se. Police could not use suspicion of cannabis use or possession to justify wider search, seizure or surveillance activities. This does not mean that people whose performance at work or driving is impaired would be off scot-free however, as employment contracts and traffic law will determine those boundaries – as they currently do in relation to abuse of alcohol.
The halfway house approach leads to a murky situation that is not constitutionally defensible. This can lead to abuse of police power and discretion that is notoriously difficult to pin down and question. The police data on decriminalisation has been exposed as a strategy that lacks courage and sees us bury our heads in the sand rather than make a clear choice between prohibition and legalisation. We need to make a clear choice at the referendum – to paraphrase Yoda, “Do or do not, there is no try”.