The Cannabis Black Market and the Case for the Legalisation of Cannabis in New Zealand

By Wilkins, Chris; Casswell, Sally | Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Cannabis Black Market and the Case for the Legalisation of Cannabis in New Zealand


Wilkins, Chris, Casswell, Sally, Social Policy Journal of New Zealand


An argument put forward in favour of more liberal cannabis laws in New Zealand is that the legalisation of cannabis would eliminate the widespread black market for the drug and the related private and social harms. This paper investigates these black market harms and draws out the implications for the current cannabis law reform debate. Several features of the New Zealand cannabis black market appear to contribute to lower individual and social impacts than experienced in black markets for cocaine and heroin overseas. These include the unprocessed nature of cannabis products; the relatively low price of cannabis; the tradition of sale through peer networks; and the widespread amateur cultivation of the drug. However, it may be that some emerging features of the cannabis scene in New Zealand are increasing the harm of the black market, such as the selling of cannabis through "tinny" houses; the growing involvement of gangs in cultivation and sale; and the emerging indoor hydroponic cultivation industry. Additional research in these areas is required to confirm these trends.

INTRODUCTION

In 2000 a Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry was established to investigate the most effective public health strategies to reduce the harm associated with cannabis, including its legal status. Those in favour of more liberal cannabis laws have argued that one of the benefits of the legalisation of cannabis would be to eliminate the widespread black market for the drug and the related private and social harms (Drug Policy Forum Trust 1997, 1998, Dawkins 2001, NORML 2001).

In the United States, proponents of the legalisation of drugs have identified a range of private and social harms that can be traced directly to the black markets created by drug prohibition (Friedman 1972, Nadelmann 1989, Ostrowski 1990, 1989, Dennis 1990, Miron and Zweibel 1995, Hamowy 1987). These include:

* the increased health risks of drugs produced on the black market;

* drug-user crime caused by inflated black market prices for drugs;

* the risk of victimisation faced by buyers and sellers forced to transact in a criminal market;

* the violent "turf wars" fought by rival gangs over lucrative drug-selling locations; and

* the black market profits that finance organised crime.

However, the United States policy literature has dealt primarily with cocaine and heroin black markets in fairly unique urban environments. It is by no means clear that the cannabis black market in New Zealand is responsible for the same level of harm.

This paper investigates the harms of the cannabis black market in New Zealand and draws out the implications for the current cannabis law reform debate. The illegality of cannabis, and the natural aversion of users and sellers to being identified, limits the statistical data that are available on the black market. Police and criminal justice databases often do not contain the type of data or level of detail that a social scientist would wish for. Consequently, at times the best that can be done is to identify areas where further research and better data are needed. For this reason, only cautious policy conclusions can be drawn from the analysis. Nevertheless, some general features of the cannabis black market in New Zealand can be identified, with real implications for the ongoing policy debate.

Before beginning it is important to be clear about the aims of the analysis. The intention is not to discuss the health or social harms of cannabis use per se, or to evaluate the benefits and costs of different cannabis policy options. These issues have been summarised and discussed elsewhere (e.g. Field and Casswell 2000, New Zealand Health Information Service 2001). The aim is to identify the harms directly related to having cannabis produced, traded and consumed in a black market as opposed to a legal, regulated market, and to discuss the implications for cannabis law reform. …

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