Alison Mau: Drug harm must stop – harm to kids, harm from abuse, harm from unnecessary criminal convictions

We've been talking about drug reform for so long that kids have been born, grown up and become regular marijuana ...

We've been talking about drug reform for so long that kids have been born, grown up and become regular marijuana smokers, writes Alison Mau.

A group of Central Otago parents had a win this weekend when police nicked a 26-year-old woman for allegedly selling pot to their kids. Police acted after the parents started complaining, and if you're a parent too, you can probably imagine their relief.

As Kiwis watch an increasing number of countries, states and provinces around the world decriminalise or legalise marijuana use, there's still one thing everyone agrees: this stuff is not for children.

That was the one of at least two points of agreement at this week's Parliamentary Drug Policy Symposium in Wellington. Fancy name, fancy setting as hundreds gathered in Parliament's Banquet Hall to talk about whether New Zealand ought to be legalising drugs. And if so, which drugs? And who should be able to produce them and sell them, and who should get the money generated?

Given the subject matter, you'd expect this to be a bit of a scrap; but along with keeping all drugs out of the hands of our youth, everyone appeared to agree that the harm – from drug abuse AND criminal convictions – needs to stop.

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Prohibition of drugs has not achieved the former. Pretty much everyone apart from Bill English, whose response to the issues raised at the symposium was another blunt "no" to decriminalisation or anything bolder, is united on this point. A representative from each of the main political parties came to be grilled on their positions; all of them raised their hands when I asked whether they agreed that prohibition had failed; all raised their hands when I asked whether they agreed law change was needed. There the agreement ended.

I started to feel a bit sorry for Peter Dunne, who as Associate Health Minister with responsibility for this stuff is far and away the expert among them. He cuts a lonely figure, grafting away year after year, making small but significant advances as he hauls the boulder of drug law reform up the endless Maunga.

Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox was candid; the party supports decriminalisation as a health issue. It is open to the conversation on legalisation. But there is strong opposition from Maori leaders in the wider community to any legalisation of marijuana in New Zealand.

Labour's health spokesman David Clark refused to be pinned down and would only say the party supported the findings of the Law Commission's 2011 review, which advocates for partial decriminalisation.

There were plenty of calls for a "conversation we need to have as a society." Only Metiria Turei for the Greens demanded a halt to the endless yakking, pointing out that this "conversation" has already been going on for years, since Nandor Tanczos led the health committee inquiry into cannabis law in 2003.

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I can't help pointing out that some Kiwi babies born that year will already be regular smokers of marijuana now, thanks to the illegal drug trade which leaves distribution in the hands of criminals who make sure it's available to children. That's a scandal.

Fortunately, The NZ Drug Foundation had lured the world's leading experts on drug law reform to Wellington for the week, and two of them had stories to tell that should help our little nation as we try to grasp this nettle.

American lawyer Alison Holcomb wrote the laws that legalised cannabis use in Washington State; she's been called the "the architect of marijuana legalisation" and more mischievously, the "Thomas Jeffer-stoned" of Washington. It's now almost five years since Initiative 502 was passed, so Washington has one of the longest records in an English-speaking country for us to study.

The new law knocked the criminalisation of small-scale users (which we know destroys lives) on the head, with arrests dropping by 98 per cent.

There has been no rise in use of cannabis by youth. There has been no rise in the number of people driving impaired by cannabis. As Holcomb put it – the sky has not fallen. 

Anne McLellan, former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, ran the taskforce that came up with their new law to legalise and regulate marijuana by next year. You could say Canada had it easy; new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had legalisation front and centre on his election manifesto – there was no need for any kind of "conversation." He had the mandate and was ready to go.

With that head-start, Anne and her team were able to nut the whole thing out in the space of five months. It does not need to take any longer than that, she told the symposium, because no law will be perfect at the get-go. Things can and should be adjusted as the effects on the community become known. But they tried to strike the balance as best they could; growing and selling will be heavily regulated; shops will be kept away from schools, sports facilities, and alcohol outlets; the rules around packaging, marketing, signage etc., will be much tougher even than Canada's very strict alcohol laws.

World-renowned drug policy researcher Alison Ritter suggested the NZ Drug Foundation's brand new Model Drug Law, under which personal use of all drugs would be legal but commercial supply and trafficking punished, would be the perfect place for our lawmakers to start.

After two days, everyone appeared to come together on one point – as drug use and the way the system works right now harms Maori the most, we have to proceed with caution. We're looking at least another few years of "conversation" whether we like it or not.

 - Sunday Star Times


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