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An Unhappy Birthday For Cannabis Law

By Chris Fowlie
Spokesperson, NORML New Zealand

In the early 1970's the Board of Health's Blake Palmer committee recommended continuing cannabis prohibition "only so long as it is seen to be largely effective". The government of the day followed their advice, and today is the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

It is an appropriate time to take stock of the situation and reflect back on what the law prohibiting cannabis has achieved, now that we have given it a decent amount of time to work.

The supply of marijuana has not been controlled by its prohibition. The billion-dollar cannabis market is controlled by the laws of supply and demand, not whatever moral ethic politicians care to legislate for. When laws step into areas best left to adults to decide for themselves, they tend to create all sorts of problems.

Cannabis prohibition is based on the assumption that all cannabis use is dangerous, morally wrong, and downright evil. This assumption, even if true, could be enforced by law if it was limited to a small segment of the population. However, cannabis use has continued to rise despite - or because of - the prohibition, to the point where now over half our adult population will admit to having broken the law and tried marijuana. Sixteen per cent will admit to being current smokers. Cannabis use increased by over twenty per cent during the 1990's alone.

Demand for cannabis has not been curtailed by the law; indeed it could be argued that the law itself has also created demand by allowing uncontrolled access to marijuana and by casting it in a rebellious and daring light. As any parent will attest, the best way to get a teenager to do something is to tell them not to do it.

The punitive approach to cannabis has seen school educations ended for a large number of young New Zealanders. Last year alone, almost two thousand pupils were given suspensions for cannabis use. Drugs were the only category where suspensions outnumbered stand-downs: for every other form of misbehaviour, schools gave most pupils a second chance. But while many schools can't be bothered with pupils caught using cannabis, we spend less than a tenth on school drug education as we do on arresting cannabis users, and we spend nothing at all on educating the general public about cannabis.

The emphasis on law enforcement has seen New Zealand emerge with the world's highest cannabis arrest rate.

Over the course of the past twenty-five years, the New Zealand police have worked hard to secure 212,596 cannabis convictions against 133,735 people. Last year alone, the police made sure 6746 more people were made cannabis criminals. Over two-thirds of all cannabis convictions have been for using, possessing or growing small amounts.

Most of these people are otherwise law-abiding, decent, hard working ordinary people. They are your brothers and sisters, your mothers and fathers, your children, neighbours, friends and co-workers. They should not be criminals.

Alcohol prohibition showed that the main effect of prohibition a widely-used substance was to create huge underground operations that can beat the police because they have more money, more people and bigger guns. A peek around suburban streets tells a similar story; that cannabis is more available than pizza, let alone beer. Tinnie shops flourish in every suburb and town, and teenagers can purchase from them without having to produce age ID.

The end of alcohol prohibition taught us another valuable lesson. When the original backers of the law saw the social destruction it had created, and realised how wrong they had been, they turned their campaign around and proclaimed "Save our Children: End Prohibition".

It should be clear to anyone who cares to look that cannabis prohibition has also failed in all its stated goals. It is time to try another approach based upon evidence and reason, rather than an uncomfortable alliance of morals and political expediency. The Government has announced it will hold another inquiry into cannabis; and like every other major inquiry it will probably recommend cannabis law reform. Let's hope that this one is not ignored. We cannot wait another twenty-five years.

National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, NZ Inc.

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