Pubdate: Sat, 20 Aug 2016
Source: New Zealand Herald (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2016 New Zealand Herald
Author: Lizzie Marvelly


Imagine a natural product with medicinal benefits that human beings 
have used for centuries. A product so popular that its sale has 
funded the activities of certain enterprises for generations. A 
product used by people young and old, well and unwell, rich and poor.

One would assume that the tax revenue from this product would be 
significant. That its popularity would demand responsible regulation 
to protect both the industry and consumers. That its widely reported 
pain-relieving qualities would be utilised to provide relief to 
sufferers of chronic pain. That gangs would be the last "businesses" 
we'd want to be responsible for its sale. It would seem like a no- 
brainer. Unless that product is cannabis. We've been waging war on 
drug users for close to 20 years, since the UN's General Assembly 
Special Session on Drug Control in 1998. The goal of that session was 
to eradicate illicit drug-use by 2008. It was a mission that failed 

Despite billions of dollars spent, huge numbers of people are still 
using illegal substances recreationally and medicinally, drug lords 
and gangs are still rich and powerful, and addicts are still stigmatised.

Like most prohibitions, banning drugs just doesn't work, and this 
week it was announced that 64 per cent of New Zealanders surveyed 
want to see the possession of a small amount of cannabis either 
decriminalised or legalised.

It's not difficult to see why they feel that way. While our justice 
system spends millions of taxpayer dollars every year prosecuting and 
incarcerating people for low-level drug offences, our levels of 
cannabis usage remain largely consistent.

The burden on our police force is immense. In the six years prior to 
2013, approximately half of all drug charges laid by police were for 
possession of small amounts of cannabis or smoking utensils ( such as 
pipes), and more than 2800 people were imprisoned for minor drug 
offences. Between 2007 and 2011, we spent $ 59 million incarcerating 
people for low-level drug offences.

Many of those people are under 25. It doesn't take a rocket scientist 
to figure out that sending a young person to prison, an environment 
the New Zealand Drug Foundation has aptly described as a "University 
of Crime", for a low-level drug offence is nonsensical. Not only does 
banning drugs not work, it has led us down a path where we have 
limited empirical information about drugs like cannabis ( a term 
which encompasses the marijuana plant, hashish and hash oil). As you 
would imagine, it is difficult to study a drug when it is illegal. In 
a review of 79 randomised trials studying marijuana use, British 
researchers found that though there was strong evidence that 
cannabinoids could be used to relieve chronic pain, support for 
theories about the drug's ability to reduce nausea and vomiting 
during chemotherapy was hindered by the limited reliability of the 
available research.

We do, however, have case studies provided by the countries that have 
decriminalised and legalised cannabis. In 2001, Portugal decided to 
treat possession of minor amounts of all drugs as a health issue 
rather than a punishable offence.

Drug-related deaths and HIV infections from needle-sharing have 
reduced significantly since. When the police catch people with small 
amounts of drugs in Portugal, they are ordered to appear before a 
so-called "dissuasion panel", consisting of legal, social and 
psychological professionals. Repeat offenders are prescribed 
treatment, rather than sent to prison. When Portugal changed its 
thinking around drug legislation, many observers assumed drug-use 
rates would soar.

They didn't. In fact, by most measures, drug use in Portugal has 
fallen over the past 15 years.

Legalising low-level drugs like cannabis would allow the government 
to regulate the sale of substances like marijuana, set age limits, 
require growers and sellers to be licensed, and would devastate the 
black market that has prospered under our current legislation. How 
great would it be if we could cut off a major source of income for 
gangs here in New Zealand?

It would allow us to commission high-quality research on the drug, 
its medicinal benefits and identify those for whom it could prove 
harmful. It would allow us to develop well-informed health programmes 
to assist addicts, education programmes for young people, and provide 
patients with chronic or terminal illnesses with a natural medicine 
to manage their pain. It would also make it significantly less "cool" 
among teenagers. Until recently, I was completely against legalising, 
or even decriminalising cannabis. I'm one of the few people I know 
who has never used the drug and I had been influenced by the culture 
of fear fostered by the war on drugs. The deeper I delve into the 
issue, however, the more I am struck by how frightening the 
consequences of prohibition are. Which is more harmful - a system 
that criminalises young people, burdens our police and judiciary, 
thwarts research, stigmatises addicts, funds gangs, and has no 
quality control, or a system that allows us to regulate cannabis like 
its close ( legal) cousin, alcohol? It's a question worth pondering.
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