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The case for cannabis law reform

24 August 2000

Address to National Press Club
By Nandor Tanczos MP
Bellamy's 12.30pm

The case for cannabis law reform


Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. The issue of cannabis law reform is an important debate happening in society and one that must be finally addressed after years of stalling.

It is an issue that comes around in cycles, surfacing every two or three years and then disappearing from view. But what strikes me most is that when people have a good hard look at the evidence, reforming the law is very hard to rationally oppose.

And that is where we run into problems. The issue has not been sensibly or rationally debated in the media. We have seen plenty of emotion and very little fact.

That is why a review of the law is so vital. It will allow the evidence to be examined openly. I am convinced that on that basis cannabis law reform will happen because, quite simply, its time has come.

By and large the public understands the need for law reform. The latest UMR poll published on Monday showed that 60 per cent of those surveyed support cannabis law reform. It is the politicians, and a few small but vocal parts of the community, who need educating.

But even among those opposing law reform there is a surprising amount of agreement on a number of major points. Most people agree that the police should not be concerned with what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own homes.

In fact it is clear, as the Health Select Committee Inquiry into the Mental Health effects of cannabis stated, that most adults use cannabis moderately and responsibly without ill effect. This is also in line with findings by the World Health Organisation.

In private conversation also with a number of people publically supportive of prohibition, I have been told that their concern is not about what adults do, but with the use of cannabis by children. Again this is something that there is general agreement on.

Who wants to see children using cannabis? It is widely accepted that people are much more likely to have problems with cannabis if they start using at a young age. Yet a quick glance at what is happening in our schools shows that our cannabis laws are failing our young people even more then they are failing the rest of the community.

Cannabis use among young people is rife and it is growing fast. Last year 2,000 students were suspended from New Zealand schools over cannabis and the figures are growing every year. According to Trevor Grice of the Life Education Trust up to 150,000 school-aged children in this country - some as young as nine - had serious drug problems in 1997.

The question we have to ask, as a matter of urgency, is what is the best policy to address these issues?

The National Party and the School Trustees Association have a petition going around all the schools - and some service stations - in this country urging parents to support prohibition. I am appalled at the willingness of the School Trustees Association to be so blatently politicised and used for political milage. I am disappointed that they have taken their position without allowing law reformers to present their case and I do not believe that the National Party has the interests of New Zealand kids at heart when they have completely refused to participate in a review to see if there is a way that actually works.

And when you consider that the 1998 Health Select Committee into the mental health effects of cannabis - which recommended the review we are currently establishing - was chaired by National MP Brian Neeson, I can't help thinking that our young people are being sacrificed for politics.

However despite my doubts over the National Party's motives it is good that the debate has come to focus on our children. All of the arguments to keep prohibition put forward over the years have not withstood scrutiny, and once again a real look at the evidence will show that prohibition is a disaster for our young people.

Firstly, prohibition is counter-productive and is a barrier to effective and honest drug rehabilitation and education programmes both in our schools and in our communities.

The fear of arrest keeps the cannabis issue underground and prevents open dialogue. It stops people who need help from seeking it and it puts up barriers between youth and the people they should be able to trust. Perhaps most significantly the law makes good quality education - which the Greens believe is the key to this issue - effectively impossible. As the Health Select Committee report said: "The double standard which sometimes surround the cannabis issue [is] an impediment to effective anti drug education... the younger generation perceive a double standard in the social acceptance of alcohol and tobacco despite their obvious negative health and social repercussions, while cannabis is clearly prohibited and its harms are less apparent".

A report this year on drug use among Maori by the Whariki Maori Health Research Group shows the main reason people who need help don't seek it is because of fear of the law. The second reason was lack of available services.

What young person is going to front up to a teacher, a nurse or - just imagine - a police officer and admit to having a problem with cannabis?

And if you thought that the police don't really arrest people for cannabis anymore, think again. In 1998 / 1999 there were over 25,000 cannabis offences reported in police statistics, most of which were for simple possession. This equalled six per cent of all reported offences in New Zealand. Of these so called 'offences' 19,000 ended in prosecution and of these over 70 per cent ended in conviction.

The total costs (to the police only) of policing cannabis laws in 1998 was $21.1 million. Police expenditure on cannabis offences has doubled since 1992 / 1993.

Why do we spend so much money arresting people rather than educating them and helping those who need it?

Prohibtionists say it is to reduce the availability of cannabis. The reality is it couldn't be more available than it is under prohibtion. Cannabis is for sale 24 hours a day, seven days a week in every suburb in New zealand. And they don't ask for age ID at the tinny house either.

We are also told that we cannot change the law because it would send mixed messages to kids. I don't accept this for a minute. The messages that prohibition sends could not be more confused: that society condones the use of dangerous drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, but punishes those who choose less dangerous alternatives; That the more people try to protect their health, such as by the use of water filters, the harsher they will be treated; That we prefer to punish people rather than help them.

Equally confusing for youth is the hypocrisy coming from so-called 'community leaders'. In joining other mayors from around the country in opposing law reform Wellington Mayor Mark Blumsky recently admitted to having used cannabis, saying "show me a university student who hasn't".

This is exactly the 'us-and-them' syndrome which Brian Edwards summed up so well when he revealed his 13 year old conviction for minor cannabis charges recently. What Mark Blumsky is effectively saying is 'yeah I smoked pot, everyone was doing it, it was no big deal, but I still think we should arrest, prosecute and convict anyone else who smokes a joint.'

This of course is the issue. Cannabis use may be widespread in society, but it is not the decision-makers who are getting arrested - it is young people, Maori and the poor.

However, just last week I was heartened to see the most constructive, pro-active and sensible approach to the problem from high schools yet. Students with drug problems from several Hutt Valley high schools are being placed - by their schools - into rehabilitation centres. A drug and alcohol counsellor is on site alongside two teachers. This project is a pilot at this stage, with 12 students taking part. I see initiatives like this as superb examples of communities taking responsibility for their young people and going to every length to keep them safe.

As the principal of Hutt Valley High School, Sylvia Burch says, 'there is no question these are good students, they're not stupid... They're students who see that they are caught in a bit of a web and can't get out of it... [This is] a way of stopping them from throwing it all away.'

Staff at these schools are discussing ways of keeping the students involved away from drugs when they return to the school. This scheme should be supported and held up as an example of what schools can do to protect their kids and offer them the support and help that they need.

This is a practical and realistic response to a very real problem. A problem that is not being helped by a petition in service stations or by arresting and criminalising the kids who need help.

We must inspire youth to take responsibility for their own well-being when it comes to all drugs - not just cannabis but alcohol, tobacco and the range of drugs that didn't exist in this country 20 years ago. We need to inform them properly of the consequences and the risks and above all we must encourage young people to respect themselves, believe in themselves and have confidence in the decisions they make.

We must encourage our young people to be honest.The current law does the opposite of that.

In the meantime we must be honest with ourselves. We can start by being honest about prohibition.

That, of course, is what opponents of law reform do not want. They do not want an open and honest discussion and they do not want the evidence to be examined, because to do so would show up the failings in their approach.

Nick Smith has been travelling around the country trying to persuade people that we should not review the cannabis laws. Why? What does he have to hide?

Perhaps the fact that under the previous National government, which tightened prohibition through a number of amendments such as the ban on cannabis pipes and bongs and the Proceeds of Crimes Act of 1993, cannabis use increased. Under that government the number of people who admitted having used cannabis went up 20 per cent, and became the majority of the country.

But don't for a minute think the National Party are united on this issue. Some of them can think for themselves. When Clem Simich was the Minister of Police he came out supporting law reform and it is well known that Deputy Leader Wyatt Creech and others in the party favour it also. When this issue comes to a conscience vote in parliament we will see how free it really is.

The fact that prohibition has been such a spectacular failure is no reason to keep the status quo. It is in fact a compelling reason to change.

The use of cannabis in New Zealand is among the highest in the world, while we have the dubious honour of having the highest rate of arrests for cannabis related offences in the world - higher even than the United States. One cannabis arrest every 20 minutes. No country goes harder on cannabis than us.

Yet in 1998 over half of all New Zealanders admitted to having smoked cannabis at some time. This is a 20 per cent increase from 1990.

Cannabis laws have resulted in rising levels of arrests and convictions, sky-rocketing police expenditure on enforcement and, most importantly, steadily rising levels of cannabis use. These are the facts.

If the goal of cannabis legislation is to reduce the use of the drug or to minimise the harm caused by its use then I challenge anybody to stand up and deny that these laws are a complete failure. Those who have broken the law to use cannabis are over half of all adults and tens of thousands of New Zealanders have criminal convictions - and restricted career and travel opportunities - for commiting what constitutes a genuinely victimless crime.

People will say - as they have been saying for 20 years - that decriminalising the law will lead to higher rates of use. In fact not a single major study of drug policy has found evidence to suggest cannabis use increases in a liberalised environment. There is no difference in use between the 10 US States that decriminalised in the 1970's and those that maintained strict prohibition. In Europe several countries attributed the removal of the 'forbidden fruit' syndrome and the introduction of education to a significant drop in drug use following decriminalisation.

In the Netherlands where the market is regulated only 15 per cent of adults admit to having ever used cannabis compared to our 52 per cent; 2.5 per cent admit to being current users compared to 16 per cent in New Zealand and youth use is half of our rate at just 12 per cent.

So where are we now?

The Government and the Greens have agreed on wide ranging terms of reference for the review of cannabis laws. There was initial jostling over which select committee should hold the review and over the next few days I expect an agreement to be reached on both the terms of reference and the location of the inquiry. The select committee itself is less important to the Greens than the terms of reference. The inquiry must be wide ranging, robust and very thorough.

This inquiry must hear the full range of opinions and work out what we wish to achieve in a drug policy. The policy should then be designed around those goals, not the other way around.

I appreciate I have talked at length and I thank you for your patience. I would just like to make one final point and that is the Green Party's opposition to spot fines for cannabis offences. In our opinion this just creates another level of injustice. Overseas experience shows that under the instant fines system more peole get busted than ever before, and many of them end up with convictions for non-payment of that fine - for one reason or another.

The instant fines proposal also fails to deal with one of the major problems resulting from prohibition - the illegal market. George Hawkins was quoted in the Dominion today saying that he does not support law reform because the cannabis market is violent and controlled by gangs. If he is really worried about organised crime in this country the quickest way to destabilise it is to shut off its major source of income.

I have been frustrated at the slow progress on this issue since the election. I know many who support law reform are also becoming frustrated. I urge your patience. The Greens are not backing off from our commitment to cannabis law reform and we are working with the Government on it.

To conclude I would like to issue a challenge. A challenge to all New Zealanders including the National and ACT parties. We know this law is failing, we know it is letting down our young people, criminalising tens of thousands of otherwise good citizens and wasting millions and millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of police hours every year.

We know cannabis use is rising unchecked and things are continuing to get worse for thousands of young people across the country. I have put the Green Party's ideas on the table and I back them fully.

The question is, if anything at all, what are you going to do about it?

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