New Zealand was once looked to for moral leadership. We were the first country to give women the vote and the first to institute a universal old-age pension, but these were 19th Century issues. On 21st Century issues, such as cannabis law reform, we are no longer close to the frontrunners. This article attempts to determine how far we have fallen.
Perhaps the first major crack in the cannabis prohibition dam came with the legalisation of medicinal cannabis in California in 1996. In the near quarter-century since then, a tidal wave of cannabis law reform has rolled around the world. New Zealand has made a determined attempt to resist this wave, and has stayed loyal to the idea that cannabis users are scum who should be persecuted.
Cannabis is now recreationally legal in California, as it is in Alaska, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and the District of Colombia. That makes for 12 places in just one country that are more enlightened than New Zealand on the cannabis issue – over 100 million people.
Even if a person would say, uncharitably, that all these places are just one country, there are now several other countries that have legalised recreational cannabis. Uruguay did so in 2013 and never looked back. Canada did so in 2018. Georgia and South Africa have also legalised recreational cannabis for possession and consumption (although not yet for sale).
So that makes five countries that have legalised recreational cannabis to some extent – but they’re not the only ones ahead of New Zealand on cannabis law reform.
Many other countries have legal arrangements where cannabis is tolerated without being fully legal. The most famous example is the Netherlands, where cannabis is openly sold from licensed cafes, on the proviso that the cafe is willing to operate under a strict set of conditions. This is not de jure legal, but there is an understanding on the part of the Police that such activity is to be tolerated (provided it stays within certain limits).
Spain has a similar arrangement, where cannabis is legal if kept to private areas such as the personal home or in cannabis social clubs. In this sense, many countries have decriminalised cannabis to a greater extent than what New Zealand has done.
Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Bermuda, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, India, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Moldova, Nepal, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Slovenia, Switzerland and Trinidad and Tobago have all decriminalised cannabis to some degree.
It might come as a blow to the Kiwi ego that several Third World countries are now more advanced than us when it comes to a major moral issue such as cannabis law reform. But it gets worse – even Australia is ahead of New Zealand in this regard now. Cannabis will be legal in the ACT as of next week, and it has already been decriminalised in the Northern Territory and in South Australia.
So that makes 40 countries that have either legalised or decriminalised cannabis to some degree – but the true picture is even worse than this, because New Zealand doesn’t even have medicinal cannabis yet.
Since becoming legal in California 24 years ago, medicinal cannabis has now become legal in a further 32 American states and four territories. Even if we apply the rule from above (according to which all these states and territories only count as one country) there are still many other countries with more tolerant medicinal cannabis laws than New Zealand.
Even Zimbabwe has more enlightened medicinal cannabis laws than New Zealand does – they legalised it in 2018. It might sound incredible to some Kiwi ears that a place with the reputation for corruption and backwardsness of Zimbabwe could be ahead of New Zealand in a major area of medical knowledge. Alas, it’s the truth.
In reality, every single country already mentioned is ahead of New Zealand when it comes to cannabis law reform. We have neither legalisation nor decriminalisation of recreational cannabis, and medicinal cannabis is de facto illegal on account of that virtually no-one can afford what’s on offer.
We were first in the world to repeal the prohibition on women voting. When we eventually get around to repealing elements of cannabis prohibition, we will be no earlier than 70th in the world to have begun to do so. If you count the American states separately, New Zealand will be no earlier than 100th or so.
It might not be easy for the Kiwi ego to accept, but not only are we years behind backwards American states like Louisiana and Alabama, but we are also years behind Third World nations such as Uruguay, South Africa and Zimbabwe. If we ever had any special ability to read the winds of change, or to provide moral leadership to a world desperately in need of it, that is now gone.
By 2020 New Zealand is, morally speaking, right back in the pack. Far from being leaders, we now respond with sheep-like herd instinct to patterns that we’re not intelligent enough to understand. The only way to lift this state of disgrace is to legalise cannabis immediately and across the board.
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