Decriminalisation and reducing harm

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
9 July, 2021

Last year’s cannabis referendum failed by a 51% to 49% margin. Drug reform advocates have since suggested decriminalising drug possession as alternative.

The case has merit but would require a bit more clarity about employers’ positions.

Professor Michael Baker, recently appointed to the New Zealand Drug Foundation’s Board, told the New Zealand Herald that New Zealand’s drug classification regime is, in short, a mess. Possession of some drugs posing little risk of addition and with little risk to public health can draw fines, imprisonment, and criminal records.

He suggested decriminalising drug possession until more comprehensive drug reform can be on the table.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark also suggested “removing criminal sanctions for minor drug offenses.” She noted more countries are shifting to legalise or decriminalise cannabis, and some are considering joining Portugal in decriminalising minor amounts of drug possession more generally.

During the cannabis reform debates, Sense Partners estimated the likely effects of several policy options, including decriminalising all drug use and possession.

Under that proposal, police would issue a caution notice to those found in possession. Cautions could lead to brief interventions, including treatment, rather than criminal prosecution. Portugal’s similar regime led to reduced harm, increased treatment, and low levels of drug use compared to other parts of Europe.

Sense estimated net social benefits between $34 million and $1 billion, depending on whether decriminalisation was accompanied by a robust treatment system.

It seems unlikely that drug policy will hit the legislative agenda. But even if decriminalisation does not much change overall drug use, it could still increase the costs employers face.

The Business Leaders’ Health & Safety Forum, in the leadup to the cannabis referendum, provided helpful guidance for businesses dealing with impairment risks. The advice would prove useful were decriminalisation under consideration. The Forum’s report also noted that Canadian cannabis legalisation increased employee cannabis use by one percentage point: from 7% to 8%.

Currently, on-the-job use of an illegal drug is considered severe misconduct. Some employers might find corrective or dismissal processes simpler when the threat of police action looms unstated in the background. Decriminalisation could make that harder if on-the-job impairment is not considered serious misconduct, or if establishing impairment for employment processes is too difficult.

Should drug legalisation make it onto the policy agenda, it should be accompanied by work ensuring employers can appropriately maintain health and safety at work.

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