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Speech to Youth Forum on Cannabis Law Reform

Hon Laila Harre Speech Notes

Speech to Youth Forum on Cannabis Law Reform
Banquet Hall

Good morning, and thank you to all those of you who have travelled here today to take part in this dialogue session on the issue of cannabis law reform.

Today's line up may start with a group of grown ups talking about their perceptions, research and experience on this issue, but this is by no means the most important part of the forum.

What we, as speakers, are hoping to do is create a safe space for young people with an interest in this issue to ask questions, air your views and gain insight into some of the possible ins and outs of the reform process.

As Minister of Youth Affairs I will try to represent your views and interests as accurately as I can to my government colleagues.

Others speakers here may represent you in a more direct way, for example by working with your peers in schools or social service organisations, or standing by those of you who are on the ground campaigning for policy change.

What we all have in common is a recognition of the fact that whatever your views, young people's voices are not heard often enough in the debate over cannabis law reform. By contrast, you continue to be upheld by grown ups as the group most likely to be negatively affected by a change in the status quo.

The challenge we face as advocates and agents of young people is making sure we work together to get you heard in this debate, and making sure the agenda we set accurately reflects what you are saying.

Like many situations grown ups know to be potentially harmful to young people, the issue of drug use is one many law reform opponents see in black and white – prohibition is right, and any liberalisation is wrong.

There's no doubt that taking drugs is not good for young people. No one is suggesting that cannabis should be legalised for those not of legal drinking age. But those under the age of 18 still have every right to engage in the debate about cannabis and other issues that will effect their rights when they are older, and the legal rights of older New Zealanders

Whether the issue of cannabis law reform is argued from a moral or legal standpoint, the clear-cut right/wrong line of thinking basically removes young people from the equation. It also removes the opportunity for New Zealand's decision-makers to develop policies that more accurately reflect the reality of young people's lives. That is that a number of teenagers are experimenting with cannabis, and the fact that it's illegal is clearly not an effective deterrent. In fact, any regime that sets out to completely wipe out cannabis use is doomed to fail. For many New Zealanders cannabis, like alcohol, is a social drug of choice. For this reason policy development should focus on how communities can work together to minimise the harm caused by its use and cultivation for sale.

That said, we must also recognise that to some rural communities with high unemployment cannabis is not just a social drug – it is an important cash crop. Estimates of the value of cannabis production in Northland range from $140 to $900 million a year.

Neither does prohibition create the circumstances we need to truly examine why a small number of our young people don't stop at experimentation or an occasional high, and lack the resiliency they need to make healthy choices around drug use.

It is important to note that local and international studies show the vast majority of young people who try cannabis do not go on to become regular users or to try other drugs.

So what are the circumstances common to those young people who do?

This question needs to be answered by young people themselves. What you say should be pivotal to any redesign of New Zealand's drug laws. It also requires close examination of things like the social background of the user, the circumstances in which drug use occurs, and the motivations for and expectations associated with drug use.

New Zealand is in a unique position of being able tailor any reform process to truly meet the needs of the very people we are constantly told will be most adversely affected by any change to the law.

Liberalisation of the laws around cannabis –whatever the form – will only succeed in minimising harm if we move away from a model that socially excludes people who use or have a problem with drugs. One model being mooted is making the possession of a small amount of cannabis for personal use a civil rather than criminal offence.

One example of this is the South Australian Cannabis Expiation Notice model, or CEN. Since its implementation, the number of cannabis offences more than doubled due to greater ease of the scheme's application compared to arrest and prosecution.

While some may use this figure to claim the scheme's success, it is also worth noting that only about half of those receiving a CEN paid the associated fine. This was thought to be mainly due to the low incomes of the offenders and their poor understanding of the consequences of paying the associated fine. Around 90% of non-payers were prosecuted; resulting in about 37,500 cannabis convictions between 1991 and 1996 that could have been avoided.

If our concerns are for young people's general health then a system that is more permissive of cannabis use, but also comparatively more effective at fining users, might be the worst of both worlds. The fines may be nothing more than a tax on cannabis users heavily weighted against those who are most likely to get caught – young people.

On the opposite side of the pole is integration, a system that creates real opportunities for the implementation of decent education, prevention, treatment and rehabilitation initiatives.

When it comes to young people, a system such as this would enable us to work with those at risk of drug abuse rather than alienating them from the education system through suspension or expulsion, or placing an indelible mark on their criminal record for experimenting with cannabis.

To close, I would like to refer to quote from the report of last year's Youth Parliament Law and Order Select Committee, which was considering a mock bill proposing the partial decriminalisation of cannabis for personal use.

The committee recommended that the youth parliamentarians abstained from voting on the bill, noting that overseas statistics show that cannabis usage has increased in countries where cannabis is decriminalised.

"However, this is no guarantee that this will happen in New Zealand. It is possible that usage may increase briefly, then level off. We believe that prohibition is not working and that people are already using cannabis in large numbers, as all members know. These people will continue to use it, even if it is decriminalised. We all agree that decriminalisation will not decrease usage.

"Cannabis usage is part of a larger problem that needs to be addressed. We agree that cannabis use is part of a wider problem. These problems include depression, intergenerational use, identity problems, sexuality, and lack of education. We see lack of education as a very big issue."

I hope that today will provide you with the opportunity to add your opinions to the debate on this issue, and I hope that you will pass on what you learn to your friends and family and encourage them to make a submission to the select committee review.

Thank you

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