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ACCL Supports Cannabis Law Reform

A. C. C. L.
The Auckland Council for Civil Liberties

PRESS RELEASE 11 August 2000
for immediate release


The Council is concerned at the low level of discussion on the cannabis issue and hopes to initiate a rational debate based on facts and evidence. At a recent meeting the Council voted to support the NZ Drug Policy Forum’s proposal to regulate and tax cannabis for the following reasons:

1 The Council believes that it is wrong in principle to criminalise personal behaviour which does not harm others and that the laws created to prohibit private use of cannabis comprise a major erosion of civil liberties in New Zealand.

2 Council members feel strongly that the public heath issues that arise from aspects of cannabis use need to be addressed and that the criminalisation of cannabis is an impediment to dealing with public health issues that arise from cannabis abuse.

3 With other concerned bodies the Council thinks that it is time to change the laws relating to cannabis.

4 Decriminalisation unjustifiably maintains a legal sanction which will fall most heavily on the poor.

1 Rights of the Individual

1.1 ‘The criminal prohibition of cannabis represents an extraordinary degree of government intrusion into the private, personal lives of those adults who choose to use it’. (Ira Glasser, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union which has officially opposed marijuana prohibition since 1968) The right to personal autonomy, what Mill called individual sovereignty, in matters of religion, political opinion, sexuality, reproductive decisions and other private consensual activities, is at risk so long as the state thinks it can legitimately punish people for activities which do not cause a physical harm to others.

1.2 Cannabis prohibition is also the rationale for a host of other civil liberties violations. It has been the cause of a serious erosion of the Bill Of Rights protections against unreasonable search and seizures. With the ACLU the Council is concerned that many employees are now subject to urinalysis drug testing programs whether or not they are suspected of using drugs. Traces of cannabis remain detectable long after it has ceased to have any pycho-active effects but a positive cannabis drug test can lead to suspension, dismissal or coerced drug treatment even though it does not measure intoxication or impairment.

1.3 The laws against cannabis use amount to unjustifiable discrimination. The recent UK Police Foundation report states that the, “law on cannabis bore heavily on young people from minority communities, … criminalised them to the detriment of their long-term future, and damaged police relations with the community.”

1.4 The Council upholds the freedom of the individual to act as they will within the confines of the commonality. One persons freedom is then confined only when it causes a harm to another. The essence of a tolerant society is the maintenance of a distinction between public and private behaviour. The intrusion by the state into people’s private lives brings the law into disrespect. The effect of anti-drug legislation has been to blur the line between what is private and what is criminal behaviour. It has created an outlaw ethos which nurtures anti social behaviour. The criminalisation of otherwise law abiding people has been promoted by the very agencies whose power increases as a result of the social chaos that has ensued.

2 Public Health Issues

2.1 The belief that criminal sanctions would control the use of cannabis has been proved to be completely false. Cannabis is generally available to whoever seeks it out. This fact is evidenced by the University of Auckland Alcohol and Public Health Research Unit’s publication, “Cannabis Use in NZ 1990-1998”. This reports states that there has been a 20% increase in those who have ‘ever tried’ cannabis over the period and a 23 % increase in current users. Simon Lenton, of the Curtin University (WA) National Centre for Research into the Prevention of Drug Abuse (NCRPDA), said in a report of that centre in 1999 that “neither a criminal conviction nor an infringement notice had much impact on subsequent cannabis use, with about 90% of each group saying it had not reduced their use of the drug.
Public health agencies who might control cannabis abuse have little credibility as they are associated with the hypocrisy of government which profits from other, more dangerous, drugs.

2.2 We are now in a situation where cannabis is either demonised or glorified. To the extent that both these perceptions are distorted real health issues, such as the therapeutic use of cannabis for glaucoma and other ailments or the danger of cannabis use by those under mental stress fail to be addressed.

2.3 The social cost of maintaining an ineffective prohibitory regime can be counted in the blighted lives of those who would never have taken cannabis had an informed choice been made possible for them. That choice remains impossible as long as the argument for abstemption is based on force and not reason. In the Netherlands, with its toleration of cannabis use, the University of Amsterdam study in 1999 found that only 15% of adults had ‘ever tried’ cannabis and that there were 2.5% current users. In comparison the Auckland study cited above gave 1998 figures of 52% ‘ever tried’ and 16% current users.

3 The Growing Appreciation that the Criminalisation of Cannabis is an ineffective way of dealing with a public health issue.

3.1 Currently MP’s from every party have expressed a willingness to move away from prohibition while The Greens, ALCP and Libertarianz parties formally support cannabis law reform.

3.2 The Law Council of Australia has decided that current prohibition policies are not working and have called for the immediate decriminalisation of possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use.

3.3 In England establishment voices, such as the Daily Telegraph have called for legalisation of cannabis. The Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir John Stevens, although opposed to legalising cannabis has said that, “In London with murder and robberies up, cannabis cannot be a priority. If cannabis was legalised we’d be fine with it, because that’s a policemen’s job. I’d work with it.” (Guardian Weekly)

4 Decriminalisation

4.1 Although preferable to the present situation decriminalisation maintains a legal sanction which is inconsistent with the principles stated above.

4.2 The experience of decriminalisation in South Australia shows that poorer citizens often become criminalized as a result of inability to pay fines. As this constitutes a differential effect of decriminalisation and is contrary to the principle of one law for all it is opposed by the council.

Appendix 1

The Council supports this model because it allows age limits to be imposed on cannabis use as currently apply to alcohol and tobacco. Marketing bans, and appropriate packaging (GE FREE) could be approved. Tar content, restricted trading hours and restriction on location of outlets (near schools etc) could be specified

Importantly this model allows taxation raised on the sale of cannabis to pay for any harms to society and the individual, as is currently the case with alcohol and tobacco, while allowing adults to make their own free choices. The University of Western Australia’s Economic Research Centre found that in 1999 the monetary value alone of the Australian marijuana market to be $5billion.http://www.ecel.uwa.edu.au?econs/erc/Mari/Mari.PDF. Assuming a pro rata adjustment in NZ the figure here would be NZ$1.4 billion yielding $144 million in GST alone. Compared to the $200 loss that Health Minister Annette King said , in answer to a parliamentary question by Wyatt Creech two weeks ago, was what the state spends on a losing battle to control cannabis, these figures show that NZ can’t afford to allow only criminals to tax cannabis.

The NZ Drug Policy Forum, an independent group of scientists and professionals, advocate the establishment of an Alcohol, Tobacco and Cannabis Authority to regulate the market and set up a regime of sensible cannabis laws. Growers would be licensed, as were hop producers, and taxed. Commercial suppliers would be required to label their products with consumer information. Sellers would also be taxed and be liable for GST.

Their model would treat cannabis use as equivalent to the use of alcohol and tobacco. Distribution of cannabis would be organised on similar lines to that presently used for alcohol and smoke-free provisions would be extended to cannabis. Just as drinkers are allowed to home brew so too smokers could grow a specific amount for their personal use. It would be legal to give a small amount of Cannabis away for no profit. It would be illegal to sell cannabis products without a license or to supply to people under 18 (unless you were their parent or legal guardian.) Council members are also of the opinion that driving while impaired by cannabis would be an offence in line with drunk driving.

Importantly taxes derived from licensed growers and sellers would fund a realistic education campaign informing of the potential hazards of cannabis use. Public heath issues concerning abuse of cannabis and its use by minors could be directly addressed.

Their report “New Zealand Should Regulate and Tax Cannabis Commerce, Final Report March 1998 is available online at http://www.nzdpf.org.nz/dfp.htm.

The spokesperson for this issue is Graeme Minchin. He can be contacted on (09) 376 9383 or office@lis.co.nz

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