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Instant fines "expedient but untenable"

Press Release: to all media: 24 March, 2000

Instant fines "expedient but untenable"

Marijuana law reformers welcome signals that Parliamentarians are increasingly supportive of liberalising cannabis laws, but warn against the South Australian "decriminalisation" model of instant fines.

Senior Labour Party Ministers are touting a flawed and untenable adjustment to the existing prohibition, and in doing so are pre-empting New Zealand's cannabis law review outcome, say law reform analysts from the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party.

"The problem of cannabis in schools shows there is a need for fair and credible interventions which make it clear to young people that marijuana use may be seriously detrimental to their concentration and learning abilities", said Blair Anderson. "The instant fine model is not a fair and credible intervention", he said - and there is a need for a broader and more informed discussion.

Government ministers with an apparent over-riding concern for political safety are characterising only two extreme alternatives to the current failure of total prohibition: On the one hand free-market style legalisation- which no one is realistically arguing for anyway, and on the other hand, a minor shift to the instant fine model - which has increased legal problems relating to cannabis use in South Australia.

Figures from South Australia showed that while usage levels have not significantly changed since expiation notices were introduced in 1987, twice as many people are entering the criminal justice system, because the law still discriminates against the poor and unemployed - criminalising those least able to pay the fine.

It was rather audacious of Government to present instant fines as the logical alternative to existing policy, said Mr Anderson. "With the expiation system, there is still the problematic black market, the distrust of police, and the contradictory double standard operating between marijuana, alcohol and tobacco, resulting in impediments to effective anti-drug education amongst the youth population."

Marijuana is part of normal daily activity for hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders. "With instant fines, the same moral crime is being perpetrated by the State in classing users as outlaws, and invading civil liberties without fully measuring the outcomes", said policy analyst, Kevin O'Connell.

Good governance demands returning to first principles: "No rational argument has ever been given to justify any degree of punishment for adults' cultivation and use. On the contrary it can be argued that to trample the culture of cannabis underfoot is a profound desecration."

There needs to be respect for cannabis users, say reformers, and recognition of adults' right to decide.

Reformers did not accept that treating cannabis as a minor offense had genuine value as a public health deterrent, and saw the preference as platitudinal, "merely there to keep drug preventionists happy."

They say that politicians like former National Education Minister Nick Smith and NZ First list M.P. Ron Mark are simplistically preoccupied with the notion that even discussing law reform sends a blanket signal to kids that cannabis is "O.K."

In reality, prohibitionary "double standard" models glamorised cannabis, created alienation and were a barrier to honesty and harm reduction, said Mr O'Connell. "The emphasis must be on an age of consent that would render health promotion coherent and consistent - differentiating appropriate and inappropriate use and treating cannabis a lot more like alcohol and tobacco."

Accountability should be tagged to effects, not the hollow intent of "sending messages" in the pretense of good governance, say the reformers.

Mr O'Connell acknowledged clinical evidence that cannabis use was detrimental to youth, and that daily cannabis use carried a risk of dependency which is mild in most cases, but can be severe for some.

Double standards do not effectively encourage moderation - they precipitate early entry and maximum uptake, he said - "of all drugs". "People need realistic information about how to best minimise harm, for example by encouraging smoke free days, or eating cannabis preparations (being careful not to over do it), rather than smoking pot".

Given the track record of huge money being spent on prohibition, reformers are suspicious that in advocating instant fines, the Government is sanctioning the vested interests of those who are currently extracting tens of millions a year through cannabis policing.

In South Australia the commodity is being exported to neighbouring states by the truckload, and a recent reduction from 10 plants [allowed to be grown] to three plants has resulted in increased gang involvement. It is therefore surprising for Health Minister Annette King to report that the South Australian enforcement model is successful, and to therefore present it as the policy adjustment New Zealand is considering.

If this government is going to convince young people that they're genuine about harm minimisation, they will have to acknowledge that instant fines, while expedient, is not necessarily the best move, say the reformers. Prime Minister Helen Clark is expressing the same preference for instant fines she advocated in 1994 - "surely she has some new insight on this crucial issue to offer the public."

Blair Anderson is adamant that the right to grow cannabis, without the right to possess, is a barren right.

Perhaps most disappointing is that ministers appear to be excluding scope for the regulatory approach, which is famously successful in Holland. In 1998, New Zealand's Drug Policy Forum Trust recommended that of all the alternative options under consideration, legally regulating and taxing cannabis would be the best in terms of enabling effective anti-drug education, restricting availability to minors, and cost-effectively cutting crime. It was inadvisable to commercialise unduly, or promote recreational drugs.

The DPFT's report prompted the health select committee's cannabis inquiry that in December 1998 recommended a review of the appropriateness of existing policy on cannabis. Reformers believe that the instant fine model would be more of the same inappropriate state interference, and non-solution to the massive social problems stemming from prohibition.

Equitable alternatives were being suggested by those parties who have actually thought about solutions and developed formal policy featuring the all-important age of consent - the Green Party, and of course the ALCP.

Both "green" parties say that adults must be initially allowed to grow and possess their own, and that optimal regulatory policy would be developed by a standing committee, such as a drugs advisory council.

"Cannabis is not a crime and should immediately be subject to a civil rights amnesty, while the best way to regulate and control it is worked out", say reform analysts. "The current interdiction rate is an outrage, and talk of instant fines continues the hypocrisy".

Meanwhile, at a public forum on cannabis held at St Andrew's College in Christchurch on Monday night, Labour M.P. and law reform advocate Tim Barnett said that the use of the words "legalisation" and "decriminalisation" confused issues and it would be more appropriate to consider alternatives to prohibition in terms of "the degree of regulation".

Interestingly, bills are before Parliament's health select committee designed to assist expedient reclassification of recreational drugs [Alcohol Advisory Council Amendment Bill, 1999, and Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill (#4)]. A majority of M.P.s favoring liberalisation in a TV1 straw poll on Wednesday, gives cause for further optimism.

O'Connell and Anderson hope to convince the health select committee [when the Committee hears submissions on MDA#4 on 5th April] to empower New Zealand "beyond prohibition", and enable fast-tracking of an initial conscience vote on marijuana.

They say that government already has the information it needs to begin the law reform process, and that continuing prohibition and criminalisation is abuse of reason and contempt for the public good.

The philosophy of the ALCP states that adults have the right to freedom of choice unless that choice harms other people or our planet.

Given the cannabis issue was decisive in the 1999 election outcome, and a majority in parliament evidently support reform, it does indeed appear anomalous that the state can continue policing cannabis "offenses" at a rate of one every 5 minutes.

There is no moral authority.

B.J. Anderson, K.P. O'Connell, (03)389 4065 mailto:webmaster@alcp.org.nz - hyperlinked text at: http://www.alcp.org.nz/24mar00.htm

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