Global Drugs Survey: The politics of pot

SHANE COWLISHAW
Last updated 05:00 19/04/2014

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Global Drug Survey

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Questions about cannabis law reform are again being posed, with a survey revealing that most users would not use more if the drug became legal.

The Global Drug Survey, conducted in partnership with Fairfax Media, shows that we are a nation of cannabis smokers, with more than a third of the almost 6000 respondents having used it in the past year.

» Click here for our interactive graphic

Respondents were also asked about their attitude towards legalising drugs, and how their behaviour would change if the law was amended.

More than 50 per cent said they would not drink more or use more drugs if small amounts of cannabis were made legal, while 20 per cent also said they would be happier about disclosing their use.  A quarter said they would be more comfortable seeking help for a drug problem. 

Almost 30 per cent of cannabis users said they wanted to use less.

Several countries have recently moved to reform their cannabis laws, with Uruguay legalising the drug. The state of Colorado in the United States has made it legal to grow, possess and consume cannabis in private.

Waikato University academic Bill Cochrane, an associate researcher at the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, said cannabis use had not increased since the late 1970s, and he would be staggered if that changed because of legalisation.

At the moment the drug was controlled by criminal elements, which exposed everyday users to risk, and New Zealand needed to ‘‘grow up’’ in its approach to cannabis, he said.

‘‘Purely on economic grounds, I would argue in favour of some change in position ... I think that if you had a sensible licensing regime and treated it in proportion to its harm, you would have no problem with that.’’

But it looks unlikely that New Zealand will change the law  soon, with Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne saying it was ‘‘not on the Government’s agenda’’. He said there were significant health issues to consider, and the case was still unproven.

Dunne said his own  view was that in the next five to 10 years,  there would be a chance for reform through the Psychoactive Substances Act, which allowed for drugs to be available to the public after being proven to have no more than a low risk of harm.

If cannabis took this path, it was likely that it would be available only at a lower strength, as the high-potency product that was currently on the market was not low-risk, he said.

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‘‘A lot of the arguments put forward have a huge amount of vested interest in them. If you had a genuine scientific proposition, maybe, but as I see it, all the advice I’ve been given is that it would struggle to jump through the hoops.’’

Green Party alcohol and drugs spokesman Kevin Hague said the party’s policy was to remove the penalty for possessing or using a small amount of cannabis. ‘‘People don’t choose to use or not use cannabis because of what the law says.’’

Most of the countries that had changed their cannabis laws had seen a reduction, rather than an increase, in use, Hague said, and the Psychoactive Substances Act was a good start, as it treated drug use as a health issue rather than a justice issue.

Detective Inspector Paul Berry, manager of the national covert operations group, said legalising cannabis  was fraught with problems, with gangs likely to simply lower their prices if it was available through legal avenues.

‘‘Unless you almost gave it away, there’s going to be a dollar in it, and if there’s a dollar, someone will try and make two.’’

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, OFFICER

You may have been let off by a friendly officer when caught in possession of  a joint, but it doesn’t mean police see cannabis as a waste of their time.

Almost 6000 New Zealanders took part in the Global Drug Survey, which included several questions about their interactions with police regarding their drug use.

Almost 10 per cent of cannabis users said they had been caught by police in the past year with the substance.

While nine in 10  had the cannabis confiscated,  almost 60 per cent said they were let off with a warning and were not charged. Many also got away with their drugs intact, with 31 per cent of those searched claiming police failed to find the cannabis on them.

Detective Inspector Paul Berry said officers often used discretion when deciding how to deal with cannabis offences. There was little point in charging a first offender for possession of a small amount of the substance.

‘‘What’s the value in putting people through court for a cannabis cigarette?’’

Likewise, police did not go searching for people who were growing a plant or two at home, but usually stumbled upon them when searching the property for other reasons.

A police warning would often put a ‘‘bit of fear’’ in people, but realistically was unlikely to stop them from smoking. If someone was on their second or third warning, or found with cannabis in a stolen vehicle, then they would be charged.

But the public needed to remember that the dealing of cannabis revolved around criminal elements and gangs, who made large sums of money from the drug, he said.

There was a trend towards indoor growing operations, and annually police destroyed more than 100,000 plants, as well as seizing other drugs, stolen property and firearms.

‘‘I think it’s money well spent, if you look at the operation we do. It’s not targeting Mary and Joe Bloggs growing cannabis in their lounge, it’s commercial.’’

*To check your drug and alcohol use go to www.drinksmeter.comwww.drugsmeter.com and globaldrugsurvey.com/highwaycode

- Fairfax Media

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