Pubdate: Wed, 22 Jul 2015
Source: Taranaki Daily News (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2015 Fairfax New Zealand Limited
Author: Philip Matthews


Drug Laws Have Been Liberalised From Portland to Portugal. Why Is New 
Zealand Missing the (Magic) Bus? Philip Matthews Talks With 
Decriminalisation Advocate Ross Bell.

Drug law reform. Is there any better example of a heart versus head 
issue? Logic and rationality tells you that the system does not work, 
that drugs are a medical issue not a criminal one.

But your gut says lock all the junkies and potheads up.

It is Ross Bell's job to wrestle with these dilemmas. For 11 years he 
has been chief executive of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, a 
charitable trust charged with preventing and reducing harms caused by drug use.

The irony is that decriminalisation of drugs can reduce harms more 
effectively than prohibition. This is where the Drug Foundation now 
finds itself. Bell's current angle is that our drug law turns 40 this 
year and is showing its age. Time for an overhaul.

The Misuse of Drugs Act became law in 1975, during the last days of 
Bill Rowling's Labour government. It was that long ago, a time of 
dancing cossacks, disco and Fleetwood Mac. The big drug scares were 
heroin and LSD.

During the parliamentary debate, Rowling-era police minister Michael 
Connelly aired the then-fashionable view that cannabis was a gateway 
drug. Pot smokers would naturally "graduate" to harder drugs.

But New Zealand was really being a follower and getting behind the 
United States, Bell says. President Richard Nixon declared a war on 
drugs in 1971. The United Nations agreed on a new drugs treaty in the 
same year. New Zealand had to keep up.

Yet even then, through the Blake-Palmer Committee report that 
anticipated our law change, New Zealand was thinking in broader 
terms. The report talked about alternatives to conviction, such as 
education and treatment. The United Nations said similar things. But 
still, the justice mentality dominated.

"The politics in New Zealand and globally have created an environment 
where the criminal justice approach is now almost embedded in our 
DNA," Bell says.

"This drug is bad, we have to stamp it out and people who are using 
it are naughty and need to be punished."

He sees the same mentality dominating in schools: "Johnny brought 
weed to school, we need to punish him."

Bell is not advocating a free-for-all, especially for school-age 
children. But he is hoping for a mature discussion.

The problem is that politicians are afraid of looking soft on crime. 
Former Act leader Don Brash was mocked when he said the war on drugs 
had failed and cannabis laws should be liberalised. And he was 
leading the party supposedly dedicated to individual freedoms.

Five years ago, the Law Commission recommended an overhaul of drug 
laws, arguing for flexibility in small-scale dealing and personal 
possession of cannabis with less emphasis on convictions and punishment.

The Labour government commissioned the review, partly motivated by 
the growing problem of synthetic drugs. But the report was delivered 
under a National government that was quick to shut discussion down.

Bell thinks that former justice minister Simon Power missed an 
opportunity. But he was stuck in that law and order mindset and could 
not stray from the party line.

The Law Commission's report was "a comprehensive piece of work", Bell 
says. It was impressive in that it talked about specifics when the 
drug debate is so often framed in generalities. But at the same time, 
it needs updating because a lot has happened in the drugs world since.

Four states in the US as well as the District of Columbia have voted 
for a fully legalised commercial cannabis market. This is not just 
decriminalisation but a big step further. Uruguay will be the first 
country to have a government-controlled legal cannabis market. The 
Czech Republic has decriminalised all drugs, as Portugal did in 2001.

Does New Zealand, which has considered itself pioneering on 
everything from the welfare state to gay marriage, now risk being 
left behind? Even Australia is ahead of us on the decriminalisation 
of cannabis.

The bigger picture is that the entire war on drugs narrative has 
fallen apart, thanks to the US.

"I think there are some inevitabilities now, mainly because the US 
has fallen. The US since Nixon has been the world's cheerleader for 
the war on drugs. Now the US needs to shut up on the world stage. 
They can no longer show up at UN forums and tell others to follow 
them because their own states are breaking the treaties."

Bell thinks that people are underestimating the significance of what 
is happening in the US.

Besides the legalisation of cannabis in some states, restrictions on 
medical cannabis research have been lifted by the White House.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder changed sentencing rules that 
were hitting African-American men disproportionately. Even 
conservative billionaires Charles and Donald Koch are supporting 
criminal justice reform.

"We followed the US into the war on drugs and I think we are going to 
join the peace movement as well," Bell says.

But when? That part is harder to figure out. Law reform may be 
inevitable but it may not be soon. There is some entrenched 
opposition in New Zealand.

An earlier select committee came up against two powerful groups 
arguing against liberalisation of cannabis laws. There were leaders 
of Maori communities and there were school principals.

Young Maori are greater users of cannabis but they are also 
disproportionately more affected by the law.

Figures from 2003 show that Maori are more than three times as likely 
to be arrested and convicted for cannabis use. Yet Maori leaders 
still maintain the view that their communities are protected by the 
current law and that decriminalisation would have worse effects. Bell 

It does not follow, he argues, that decriminalisation or even 
legalisation would increase use in New Zealand. Research by David 
Fergusson and Joseph Boden at the University of Otago in Christchurch 
estimated that 80 per cent of young people will use cannabis at least 
once before turning 21.

"How much higher than 80 per cent can you get?" Bell asks.

Despite prohibition, one in 13 New Zealand adults use cannabis at 
least once a month. The United Nations World Drug Report in 2014 had 
New Zealand third in cannabis use behind Iceland and the US. In 
ecstasy use, we were second, behind Australia.

That use is so widespread is one simple way of demonstrating that the 
law is not working.

Another is to look at the crime figures which suggest that 
drugrelated harms still remain, despite decades of law enforcement. 
Bell has compiled them within an essay titled The Case for Drug 
Policy Reform that he hopes to make widely available soon.

Some examples. While around 58,700 people get help at some point in 
their lifetime to reduce drug use, around 33,000 people want help but 
cannot get it. This tells Bell that we should redirect some funds 
from law enforcement. Of those who want help and do not get it, 16.5 
per cent say fear of the law or the police stops them.

Conviction is not a deterrent, Bell found. In fact, 95 per cent of 
those convicted of possession or use of cannabis maintain their use 
or increase it, according to Ministry of Health figures.

But there is a growing irony in the cannabis debate. While few call 
it a gateway drug any more, it still has a public reputation as a 
soft and relatively harmless substance. Almost everyone does it, with 
little social stigma. But some researchers think cannabis is more 
harmful than was once assumed.

The University of Otago research found links between cannabis use and 
incidences of depression, anxiety, psychotic symptoms and suicidal 
ideation. Another researcher, Nadia Solowij from the University of 
Wollongong, found that cannabis use affects cognitive impairment and 
IQ. She has also said that the link with schizophrenia, once doubted, 
is now more certain.

Given this new-found harmfulness, should we be wary of making 
cannabis more available?

"We're really clear that cannabis is harmful," Bell says. "The law is 
not protecting us against those harms which is why we need to reform 
the law." A Portuguese model might appeal. We could funnel some 
criminal justice resources towards health and education. Portugal's 
decriminalisation was a response to a massive heroin problem, with 
associated addiction and crime issues, so we could not follow their 
example exactly, Bell says. But there are lessons to learn.

One is to pour more resources into treatment services. Another is the 
innovative idea of providing training and job placements for those 
coming out of treatment. The Portuguese government gives a tax break 
to companies that employ recovering addicts.

"One of the consequences of a criminal justice approach is that we 
frame it as a moral problem," Bell says. "We have created a stigma 
around drug use which makes it very difficult for someone in recovery 
to get work."

Total legalisation, as in the US, is probably not the way to go, Bell 
suspects. Like many, he was "gobsmacked" by the vote in Colorado and 
Washington states in 2012. But what will follow? There is every 
chance that a Philip Morris-style commercial operator could move into 
the cannabis market.

No, we already have the right model here, he says. It was one that we 
tried and that many assumed was a failure. It was the legal highs regime.

What happened there was simply "bizarre", he says.

The long story is that the drug Benzylpiperazine (BZP) started being 
a problem around the same time Bell started in his job, early last 
decade. One product would be prohibited and a new, slightly modified 
form would appear soon after. It was cat and mouse stuff, Bell recalls.

It became a wild west of new chemicals. There were between 200 and 
300 party drugs on the market before the Psychoactive Substances Act 
became law in 2013. The market was regulated, licences were issued 
and around 30 products were approved for sale.

"I was wrong but I thought that media, politicians and the wider 
public had witnessed this 10-year cat and mouse game. I thought we 
all grew up. We all understood prohibition doesn't work."

He suspects that when the public heard about "regulation" they 
thought it meant these drugs would go away once and for all. Instead, 
they saw a shop in a local mall sell legal highs all day long.

Campbell Live told sad stories about young addicts and took associate 
health minister Peter Dunne to a desolate mall in Naenae to see the 
social damage. It was a lesson in the power of images.

Pet owners marched, concerned that animal testing was a feature of 
the new law. Who would dare take on the mums, cats and dogs lobby? An 
election loomed and Labour promised to get tough. So the Government caved.

"That's dead in the water for a while," Bell says. "I think the law 
was the right thing. It was poorly sold."

There is no question that it was poorly understood. Bell says that 
about a week into Campbell Live's campaign on legal highs, John 
Campbell himself rang and asked how the law works. A member of 
parliament told Bell that three-quarters of a party's caucus did not 
know what they were voting for.

"They were probably thinking what the public was thinking, that this 
was a comprehensive ban."

Bell is still convinced that the legal highs regime was good and 
should have stayed in place: "If we had given it two years to settle 
down and Campbell had done more accurate reporting, then I think we 
would be in a different situation."

Of course there are lessons in that story for anyone arguing for the 
decriminalisation of cannabis in New Zealand. What are they?

"That politicians' instincts are probably correct. Tread very 
carefully when it comes to this. I think this has scared the horses 
for a while."

But there are signs of progress. Bell is not alone in thinking that 
the Psychoactive Substances Act was a pioneering solution. At a 
United Nations meeting in Austria in March, none other than Peter 
Dunne praised the unpopular law as an "innovative" response.

Other comments were equally sensitive and surprising. He argued that 
"overly punitive responses" did nothing to address health and social 
issues, and that a "big stick" approach is not working as a deterrent.

He talked about compassion. He talked about moving away from "rigid 
law and order responses". Was this the same Peter Dunne who blocked 
cannabis law reform in 2002 when Labour needed his party in a coalition?

So it seems. Even during the recent mini-scandal that followed 
Wellington emergency doctor Paul Quigley's comments about legalising 
MDMA, Dunne seemed more measured than before, Bell says.

Five years ago, Quigley might have been at risk of losing his job, 
Bell thinks. Instead, there was some public discussion. Dunne asked 
to meet Quigley and talk it over.

"He's no longer thumping his fist on the lectern, saying over my dead 
body," Bell says. And you can call that progress, even if law reform 
in New Zealand is a long game.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom