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The most appropriate legal status?


The most appropriate legal status?

The Labour-Progressive Government's capitulation to the United Future party's anti-cannabis stance, categorically ruling out any change to the legal status in this parliamentary term, does not appear to be remotely 'evidence based'... and appears to violate standards of demonstrable justification one may reasonably expect in a genuinely 'free and democratic' society...say the Mild Greens on news that the long awaited report is to be tabled this day.

What follows is a word-for-word extract (pages 30-33) from the ANALYSIS OF SUBMISSIONS ON THE INQUIRY INTO HEALTH STRATEGIES TO MINIMISE CANNABIS RELATED HARM, AND THE MOST APPROPRIATE LEGAL STATUS OF CANANBIS, Ministries of Health/Justice, December 2001:

Themes from submissions

-----------------------

The [preceding] analysis highlights key features of the submissions regarding the most effective public health and health promotion strategies to minimise the use of and harm associated with cannabis, and their relationship to the legal status of the substance.

It is possible to summarise these features into eight themes as follows:

Cannabis as a drug

The majority of people recognised that cannabis is a drug, and like all drugs consumption may result in positive or negative effects on health status. Forty percent hold this ?balanced? view ? acknowledging that the substance can have both adverse and positive impacts on public health.

Specific visible harmful effects

Those that explicitly stated that use was harmful to health often highlighted a specific effect, incident and/or population group where the harmful effects are visible to family members and peers, or the resulting behavioural changes have had a detrimental impact on educational status, health (mental), career, employment or travel opportunities. Children, youth, and those with a pre-existing disease or being susceptible to mental illness were commonly highlighted as populations that frequently experience harmful health effects related to cannabis use.

Harm Minimisation Philosophy

Despite the general acknowledgement of the contradictions inherent in advocating for an overarching philosophy of harm minimisation for an illegal substance, 44% of submission supported this approach. Few submission were specific about what they meant by this term, but implied they envisaged a "package" of public health policies and programmes encompassing legislation, regulation and community development, to targeted and individualised health promotion and education programmes.

The focus of the commentary tended to emphasise the legal status. However, these submitters wanted a safer, ?controlled? environment, where cannabis use is acknowledged; credible, factual information is available, as is information/promotion regarding minimal or moderate or responsible use, providing means to minimise potential adverse health effects to users and others. Specialised education, counseling and treatment programmes should also be provided for those individuals who need them.

Preferred legal status related to perceived harm of cannabis

The stated preference for the legal status of cannabis links directly to the perceived extent of harm from cannabis use. Those most explicit about the adverse health impacts usually advocated for the status quo or illegality ? 83% of those favouring the legal status quo mentioned only negative health effects. Generally those who believe cannabis has only positive effects, or both negative and positive health effects, favour a change in legal status to legalisation and regulation or decriminalisation to some level.

Health/legal status link

Generally those supporting a change in the legal status of cannabis believe that many of the harms from using cannabis arise because of its illegal status (e.g. uncontrolled black market; criminal convictions) and that public health can only properly be addressed if the criminal element is removed.

Support for medicinal and/or therapeutic use

There is a reasonably high level of recognition of potential or real medicinal effects of cannabis amongst submitters ? 20% of submissions stated that cannabis could be medically beneficial, with about 10% specifically commenting on a legal exemption for medical use.

Integrate public health policy programmes and legal regime

Cannabis health policy and public health programmes need to be developed in conjunction with any legal or police policy programme. Any change in the legal status of cannabis should be implemented accompanied by a range of public health strategies. Some health promotion strategies, e.g. mass health education campaigns, may be more appropriately implemented prior to any law change.

For those who support a law change, they believe that resources currently spent on policing and enforcement of cannabis law should be redirected to fund effective drug education and treatment programmes.

Develop public health policies for communities/groups

Specific public health policies, programmes and funding are required for some communities and/or target groups. These are required to support the development of healthier communities and/or manage the high risk of exacerbating current complex public health problems, should the legal status of cannabis be changed.

Themes from expert submissions

------------------------------

While the nature of the ?expert? submissions (EXP 1-9) mean that they tend to view the cannabis issue from different areas of expertise, several themes (*) nonetheless emerge as follows:

Risk of cannabis-related harm relates to the extent of use and vulnerability

For the majority of occasional cannabis users, there is a low risk of cannabis-related harm. For the 5-10% of mainly young New Zealanders who use cannabis heavily, however, various social, mental and physical harms can result. Those most vulnerable to using cannabis also tend to come from already socially disadvantaged groups with pre-existing problems.

Policies should avoid criminalising non-problematic cannabis users

Various social harms result from giving criminal convictions to occasional cannabis usere, who do not pose a risk to themselves or others. The law should therefore contain options for dealing with minor cannabis use which avoid criminalisation. Several mechanisms are recommended including:
· Cautioning for first offenders
· Diversion to education programmes or treatment
· Expiation of repeat offences through fines (with flexible payment options) or compulsory education.

Health promotion strategies should address broad social harms in the community

Given that vulnerable cannabis users tend to come from socially disadvantaged communities, with problematic use adding to other pre-existing problems (i.e. educational failure, unemployment, mental health problems etc.), a broad-based appraoch to reducing cannabis-related harm is necessary. Strategies should be inter-sectorial, collaborative and multi-layered, with a strong community action focus.

Reducing criminal penalties to some extent, may enhance the environment for reducing cannabis-related harm

Very strict prohibition of cannabis, where even minor personal use offences are criminalised, can be argued to contribute to the following problems:

· Criminalising non-problematic users, with resulting social harm
· Creation of a large-scale black market
· Causing disrespect for a widely broken law
· Hampering provision of effective health promotion information
· Hampering provision of and access to the best treatment services
· Hampering access to cannabis for medicinal purposes
· Encouraging punitive, harmful policies in schools

Reducing the criminal penalties for cannabis offences to ?some extent, may alleviate the above problems by providing more options for dealing with cannabis under the law. A more flexible cannabis legal framework, even under the existing general prohibition approach, which may have benefits in reducing cannabis consumption rates, may provide a better environment for more innovative approaches to reduce cannabis-related harm.

(*) A particular ?expert? submission may not necessarily make comment on or support the theme noted. ESR?s submission (EXP/1), for example, provides impartial scientific information, not commenting on legal frameworks.

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