Pubdate: Sat, 09 Jun 2012
Source: Timaru Herald (New Zealand)
Contact:  2012 Timaru Herald
Author: Al Williams


Waimate councillor Sandy Mulqueen's bid for cannabis 
decriminalisation may be gone, but it's not forgotten.

Mulqueen hit the headlines over the past fortnight when she formed a 
lobby group and made a submission to her own council's long-term plan 
outlining a project to decriminalise marijuana for personal and medicinal use.

Her cause attracted national media attention when she admitted being 
stoned while working as an Auckland city bus driver. A Timaru Herald 
poll which ran alongside the story attracted more than 3000 votes and 
raised much debate on the topic, indicating wide public interest.

More than two-thirds of voters supported either decriminalisation or 
legalisation, and the rest the status quo.

Mulqueen's campaign was thrown out by the Waimate council but she 
pledged to continue lobbying for legalisation.

But for Ross Bell, executive director of the New Zealand Drug 
Foundation, legalisation is not an option. He says Mulqueen has made 
some bold claims about the medical, spiritual and economic benefits 
of marijuana.

He agrees with her, though, that the current law is not working to 
reduce the harm of cannabis.

"The law doesn't do what it is designed to do; we think it's obsolete 
and needs to be modified."

Bell is supporting the Law Commission's 2011 call for change.

"That review [of the 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act] was the first and only 
time that law had been reviewed in its entire history. What they said 
was the law hasn't kept up with the 21st century; they said the law 
did need to be reformed, but not decriminalisation or legalisation."

Bell says the proposal is to caution those caught with small amounts 
of cannabis; up to three cautions, then those caught three times 
would be referred to drug and alcohol counselling services.

"What the Law Commission is saying is the drug problem is 
fundamentally a health issue; it's best to be dealt with by 
professionals rather than the criminal justice system.

"What the Law Commission is suggesting is to free up the police for 
the large-scale offending."

The Law Commission report called for a mandatory cautioning scheme 
for all personal possession and use offences that come to the 
attention of the police, removing minor drug offenders from the 
criminal justice system and providing greater opportunities for those 
in need of treatment to access it. It went as far as requesting a 
review of the current drug classification system which is used to 
determine restrictiveness of controls and severity of penalties, 
addressing existing inconsistencies and focusing solely on assessing 
a drug's risk of harm, including social harm.

Under the proposal, separate funding would also be available for the 
treatment of offenders through the justice sector to support courts 
when they imposed rehabilitative sentences to address alcohol and 
drug dependence problems.

It also suggested a pilot drug court, allowing the Government to 
evaluate the cost-effectiveness of deferring sentencing of some 
offenders until they had undergone court-imposed alcohol and/or drug treatment.

Those at the coal face have varied accounts. About 75 per cent of 
people assessed by South Canterbury District Health Board drug and 
alcohol services identify cannabis as a substance they are abusing.

Symptoms include short-term memory loss, paranoia and low motivation, 
clinical nurse manager Darrell Evans says.

"In some cases these symptoms impact on their ability to function at 
the level you would expect."

The service sees about 180 people at any one time.

"The vast majority of the people we see for treatment for either 
alcohol or other drugs, are also using cannabis to some extent."

Cannabis is also increasing in potency, Evans says.

"Over the years people are reporting increased strength in the 
cannabis they are using; I am also seeing symptoms of increased paranoia.

"Depressive symptoms, respiratory diseases and lowered sex drive are 
just some of the negative long-term effects of cannabis use. Probably 
the greatest long-term effect I am seeing is the loss of personal 
motivation; this lowers their self-worth, self-esteem and their 
ability to gain or hold on to a job."

The service provides assessment and treatment including therapy, 
residential programmes, group work or individual programmes.

Males between 20 and 40 make up the majority of clients.

"We refer people to a number of residential programmes in 
Christchurch, Dunedin and Blenheim; we also use our local supported 
accommodation service, Caroline House, and day support programmes 
such as Victoria House and 101.

"A strong Maori mental health unit and Maori support workers are part 
of the assessment and treatment process for Maori."

New Zealanders are among the highest users of cannabis in the world, 
according to 2009 United Nations figures quoted in a medical magazine.

More than 8 per cent of the population aged 15 to 64 are reported to 
be using the drug.

Former National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) 
president Stephen McIntyre lists several reasons to support legalised 
regulated availability of cannabis to adults.

He says the vast majority of New Zealanders want cannabis law reform.

"When neither major political party endorses law reform even though 
half the adult population have used cannabis and support law change, 
we need to remind our elected representatives that they are the 
servants of the people; by continuing with the status quo politicians 
are not responding to best evidence or public opinion."

He says regulated availability would make cannabis more difficult for 
children to buy.

"Letting unregulated dealers control the market isn't protecting 
young people from access to cannabis; legalised regulation demands 
the same commonsense ID requirement used for buying alcohol."

For safer communities, it decreases the influence and profits of 
violent criminals, he says.

And for Maori, it addresses the issue of disproportionate arrest 
figures for cannabis.

"Legalisation alleviates much of the $160 million annual cost to 
police, not to mention the pressure on courts and prisons, while 
maintaining the current laws against irresponsible use, such as 
impaired driving under the influence or supplying cannabis to minors."

He suggests it would create much-needed jobs.

"The black market $250m figure is only an estimate and doesn't 
include all the ancillary industries a legal market would bring."

McIntyre concludes that cannabis can be taxed. "Legalised cannabis 
sales are subject to GST and an excise tax that supports much-needed 
health and education services for drug users.

"Rough estimates on the aggregate tax revenues suggest they could be 
in the order of at least $200m per annum."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom