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Big News: Why Should Smoking A Joint Be A Crime?

BIG NEWS with Dave Crampton

Why Should It Be A Crime For An Adult To Smoke A Joint?

Last week I was asked if I was going to do a column on decriminalising cannabis, and whether I supported the move. I said yes on both counts. I support dope decriminalisation only if it leads to more education and lower use, especially amongst kids.

Statistics released this week show that about half those aged 15-45 have broken the law by smoking cannabis. Drugs have become socially acceptable amongst teenagers, despite it being more of a health hazard for them than for adults. Some of these kids smoke cannabis at school and many of them are among the 20 percent of teenagers who leave school with no qualifications.

Last year our dopey Health Minister Annette King stated it was the governments objective to halve cannabis use by 2004 (yeah right Annette, start with your dope-toting daughter first!), but she supports decriminalisation of the drug. Yet, along with Helen Clark, King is going all out against cigarette smoking in the very places where you should be allowed to have a smoke – public bars and cafes – while condoning it at the RSA and working men’s clubs. Yet kids who want to smoke can easily get cigarettes out of machines at licensed venues. It may be more expensive but it is a lot easier than getting them over the counter. Machines don’t ask for ID. Labour MP’s should be more concerned about that.

Nick Smith and the National Party are going all out against decriminalising of dope, even it was the Nat’s who agreed to a recommendation that the legal status of cannabis be reconsidered in the first place, along with drug education. It is the first review of the law since 1973. The recommendation was in a 1998 Health Committee report that found that cannabis doesn’t affect the mental health of the majority of users. The chairman of that health committee: National and Waitakere MP Brian Neeson. The result: Submissions to a select committee may lead to a conscience vote in parliament to pass legislation ensuring adult dope smokers don’t get a criminal conviction for smoking a joint. Not everybody wants that.

Everyone agrees that both cannabis smoking and resultant criminal records are harmful for kids. Therefore, opponents maintain, adults should not legally be allowed to smoke dope as kids will think “if it is legal for my parents to smoke dope, its OK for me to as well”. Kids also believe they are highly unlikely to be caught – and even less likely in a decriminalised environment.

Proponents of law reform maintain harm can be minimised by decriminalising the drug along with education prevention measures. Opponents are quite happy for more drug education, as long as the legal status of cannabis remains the same. All say the status quo is unacceptable.

There are three things everybody agrees on: Children should not smoke cannabis, education programmes should be put in place for those that do, or want to, and the current law is not working to decrease usage. So something has to change. The biggest question is whether to change the system without changing the law.

Most opponents oppose drug decriminalisation mainly because of the adverse effects of the drug on educational achievement of children. Even if decriminalisation was restricted to adults, opponents maintain it would send young people the wrong message that is all right for them to use the drug. That’s a good argument if the public were already receiving the right message.

One option for drug reform is to retain the present law and implement education programmes that minimise use, especially amongst teenagers. But the legal status of cannabis can prevent effective public education messages, although no teachers would say that. The School Trustees Association, new mates of Nick Smith, has managed to gather 36 000 signatures against a law change. But it is not just a legal issue, in fact it is more of a health issue. That’s why the health select committee is hearing submissions, not the justice and electoral committee.

It may seem strange that health issues are being weighted to determine a law change. It is vital that any change of legal status of cannabis will not lead to increased usage, but health prevention strategies are likely to be more effective where there is no illegal or criminal link. It’s a tough one to decide.

But why should it be a crime for adults to smoke pot just because kids might illegally use it – as they are doing anyway? Will continued criminalisation of cannabis protect kids and stop kids smoking it? It’s not happening at the moment. Education may protect kids from harm as long as behavioural attitudes change.

The main function of criminal law is to protect individuals from harm caused by others. It is contentious to use legal measures to protect individuals from harming themselves – like the victimless crime of smoking cannabis. Taking cannabis should be criminal only in circumstances where harm results, or is likely to result. But an adult who legally takes cannabis can hardly be blamed for harm to a teenager who illegally smokes.

If it was currently a crime to smoke tobacco and drink alcohol – a drug more poisonous than dope - it seems most unlikely that they would be decriminalised today. Most people who are in contact with problems created by drug use are opposed to relaxation in current cannabis laws – but they also oppose relaxation to cigarette and alcohol laws. Some who work with drug addicts maintain drugs are the problem - drugs are wrong and drugs are bad.

Don’t blame drugs for drug addiction – that’s like blaming cars for road accidents. Behavioural attitudes need to change and it remains to be seen whether legislators consider these changes need to be made in a sinful or sin-free environment.

Having a criminal record for smoking dope is ludicrous – maybe a spot fine is a better deterrent. Poorer people should have a chance to pay fines in instalments instead of being made criminals for failure or inability to pay on the spot.

- Dave Crampton is a Wellington-based freelance journalist, in addition to writing for Scoop he is the Australasian correspondent for He can be contacted at

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