Outspoken support for the cannabis status quo is hard to find
For a law that has been so hard to change, the criminalisation of cannabis seems to have few outspoken supporters.
Senior members of the Government will fight their corner if pushed, but it's hard to find a detailed defence from the people who make the laws of the cannabis status quo.
When questioned, Prime Minister Bill English said cannabis did "real damage" to people, particularly when combined with mental health problems.
Health Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman was not in favour of decriminalising cannabis, saying we have "too many drugs in society" andJohn Key, when he was still prime minister, painted a scenario where cannabis stores would sprout on street corners.
"You show me the communities who want to put up their hand and say I want a tinny house at the end of my street?" he said.
It appears to be left to Family First NZ national director Bob McCoskrie to mount a stout defence of the status quo.
His conservative Christian lobby group has welcomed a cautious approach to medicinal marijuana. But any hint of liberalising cannabis laws, McCoskrie said, is the wrong path if we care about public health, public safety, and our young people.
"There is a false dichotomy that criminal sanctions apparently haven't worked, so we should ditch them altogether and we should focus only on education and health initiatives," he said. "We should maintain both."
Claims that hundreds of people were being locked up for petty drug offences were debunked by Ministry of Justice statistics showing fewer than 10 people were given prison sentences for cannabis possession offences in each of the past three years, he said.
"Erroneous claims that we are wasting time and resources focusing on the criminal aspect fail to understand that there has been a substantial decline in arrests for cannabis use in New Zealand over the past decade, and that police diversion and Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment (AODT) Courts have been increasingly used," McCoskrie said.
"But it is the application of the law which enables these orders to be made and enforced in the first place."
The idea that legalising cannabis will free up police time was described as "naive" by New Zealand Police Association president Chris Cahill, who said police spend little time dealing with cannabis-only offending.
"The reality is that the only targeted cannabis policing is around the dealing of cannabis," he said. "They don't target the users of cannabis.
"A lot of these cannabis houses are also dealing methamphetamine, so that's the main target, but at times the cannabis is included across that.
"As far as people being charged with just 'possession of cannabis' offences, the vast majority of those charges are add-ons to more serious offending."
The discussion on legalisation of cannabis was not a simple one, he added.
"While we're probably relatively comfortable that people shouldn't necessarily be receiving a lot of convictions for just possession of cannabis, the idea of legalising it has lots of other implications.
"For instance, while an adult who smokes a joint of cannabis on a Saturday night may not be at any serious health risk, 13 or 14-year-old youths that smoke cannabis is a totally different situation, and that needs to be understood."
Former Act MP Dr Muriel Newman takes a tough line on cannabis.
"While supporters of more liberal cannabis laws often say that smoking the drug is a victimless crime, the facts show the opposite," she wrote in a post on the website of the New Zealand Centre for Political Research, which she founded.
She was referring to a NZ Transport Agency report, which looked at the dangers of drugged driving. The report said a study of the blood of deceased New Zealand drivers found 30 per cent of them had used cannabis with or without alcohol or other drugs.
"Cannabis is clearly a very dangerous drug, especially for young people," Newman said.
Columnist Mike Yardley reckoned "you'd have to be off your scone" to support a referendum on decriminalising cannabis for personal use.
"Two per cent of Kiwis have graduated from the gateway drug of cannabis to become meth-heads. Should we adopt a similarly defeatist attitude to methamphetamine's legal status quo?" he wrote.
Yardley pointed to data from the National Committee for Addiction Treatment showing 55 per cent of New Zealand prison inmates were cannabis dependent.
"It fuels crime," he said. "And we're all paying the price for cannabis dependence through its devastating impact on mental health."
Across the Tasman there seems to be a concerted effort to halt any attempt to make access to cannabis easier.
Drug Free Australia's position statement is that it supports a "balanced and humane illicit drug policy that aims at demand reduction, primary prevention and recovery-focused rehabilitation".
"This can never be achieved if illicit drugs are condoned through their legalisation," it said. Accessibility, availability and permissibility would all increase consumption.
Two leading officers of Drug Free Australia were among the authors of a paper that argued against relaxing the law on the use of cannabis for medical purposes.
"Cannabis is, globally, the most used illicit drug, which in itself creates a significant challenge. By legalising it for ‘medical’ purposes, use rates would soar, as this would constitute ‘acceptance’ of the substance and send a message that it is ‘safe’ to use," the paper said.
Any measure of government policy that could influence increased recreational use would be highly detrimental. Studies showed "a continually increasing case against increased cannabis use because of the high risk to the health of users, their children, and in the overall social costs to the wider community".
In New Zealand, medical professionals warn about the dangers of cannabis, but that doesn't mean they are in favour of the status quo.
For example, an editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal in 2016 noted there was good evidence of the harms associated with cannabis use.
Population-based studies showed increased rates of psychosis associated with cannabis use, individuals identified mental and physical harms, and there were likely to be carcinogenic effects related to the smoking of cannabis.
The editorial noted the medical evidence to support medicinal use of cannabis was "weak".
"There is speculation that patients may use cannabis simply because it makes them feel better," the editorial said.
Despite talking about harm caused by cannabis, it also said it was time to review the prohibition of cannabis.
The Government has a National Drug Policy - for 2015 to 2020 - but it doesn't really read like a ringing endorsement of the cannabis status quo.
In the policy's foreword, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne said the Government's approach to minimising harm from alcohol and other drug misuse "needs to be compassionate, innovative and proportionate".
"This recognises that alcohol and other drug problems are first and foremost health issues."
It was necessary to be prepared to challenge traditional approaches, Dunne said.
"The international landscape has also shifted, with a growing recognition that the harms we are trying to prevent can come from our approach to drugs as much as from their use."
One of the policy's goals is to control supply, which includes "shutting down domestic growing, manufacturing and supply".
Only about a third of the public support the existing law prohibiting possession of cannabis for personal use, according to a poll commissioned by the Drug Foundation in 2016.
More than 1000 people took part in the survey in July and August last year, with 34 per cent in favour of retaining prohibition on possessing a small amount of cannabis for personal use. A third thought it should be legal and 31 per cent thought it should be decriminalised - the strongest majority the foundation had seen in favour of reforming the drug law, according to executive director Ross Bell.
Of those who took part, 44 per cent wanted personal growing to remain illegal, 76 per cent wanted growing for friends to stay illegal and 64 per cent wanted selling from a store to be illegal. When it came to growing or using cannabis for medical reasons such as alleviating pain, only 16 per cent thought it should be illegal, with the figure edging down to 15 per cent for people with a terminal illness.
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