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Cannabis Out Of Closet, But Don't Hold Your Breath

Cannabis seems to be one of those issues that just doesn't seem to completely disappear - perhaps largely due to its status as a political football. Developments this week which have, apparently, seen Labour's Tim Barnett pledge a review of cannabis law under a Labour government has shown the political sluggishness to tackle an issue this close to an election which will fail to win votes.

That's not to say that cannabis law reform is a bad idea. Overseas examples of decriminalisation show plummeting levels of use among children and, given the almost endemic nature of cannabis use in New Zealand schools, surely this has to be the number one aim. However while the issue is controversial, it is not one which is going to swing support your way if you promise to review the law. Hence most parties try to avoid it like the plague - especially at times like this.

And that's a shame because the argument for decriminalisation or legalisation is largely one based on common sense and is one that could certainly do with a proper airing and debate. The issue becomes even more interesting when people remember that the Minister of Police Clem Simich is (or maybe was) a supporter of cannabis law reform and that the police and Ministry of Health are also not against examining the idea.

National oppose any review of cannabis law almost as a matter of course - and particularly due to the Prime Minister's strong anti-reform views. This makes, most probably for good politics, as the current status of the drug sits comfortably with their conservative constituents.

Meanwhile Labour's position is somewhat more ambiguous. A spokesperson for Helen Clark said he wasn't sure if there was a policy on cannabis and couldn't confirm whether Tim Barnett's pledge of a review was in fact based on reality. Regardless, Labour will not be pleased that one of their MPs is bringing up the cannabis issue three months out from a general election.

Most other parties who in principle support cannabis law reform, such as the Alliance and the Greens will also not be keen to make too much of a deal out of it before this election. They know that although their case may be based upon good research and is designed to minimise the harm of the drug, a good chunk of the public can't seem to get their head around the principle that making things illegal doesn't always address the problem. In fact in some cases it can make things worse.

Significantly, from a political perspective, opposition to cannabis reform cuts right across party boundaries and thus having a reform agenda is potentially harmful to any party.

Whether you support law reform or not, most people will agree that something has to be done, and soon. Use of the drug has according to some reports become common among children as young as 10 and is perhaps the single biggest problem in New Zealand primary and secondary schools. Suspensions for children using or possessing the drug at school are going through the roof, and the problem is not going away.

In that respect it is a shame that it is election year and the parties do not want to debate the issues.

Given that the use of the drug is rampant and that the criminal status of the drug is clearly not working as any kind of deterrent, any kind of action on the issue must be good action.

Political sideshows like the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party do little to help the debate and further reduce the credibility of those parties who favour cannabis law reform. Why would somebody vote for a 'cannabis party' with only one policy when there is a much better chance of getting the law reviewed by voting for a mainstream party already in Parliament who supports decriminalisation?

Thankfully the ALCP are unlikely to ever get to Parliament. If they did who knows how they would vote on other issues like health, education, superannuation and welfare. Don't ask them because they certainly don't know.

There is a good foundation for the argument that the criminal status of the drug makes it appear more glamorous and appealing to young people and that prosecuting the occasional user is maximising the harm of the drug rather than minimising it. Largely cannabis use is a victimless crime. We should recognise the very real risks it poses to the development of young people and make reducing use in this area the priority.

How we go about doing this is the question. Unfortunately it is not one which is going likely to be asked or answered intelligently in the next three months at least.

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