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Nandor's Decrim Bill will reduce harms of prohib'n

National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, New Zealand Inc.


MEDIA RELEASE -- JULY 19, 2005

Nandor's Decrim Bill will reduce harms of prohibition

National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) president Chris Fowlie today welcomed the introduction of Green MP Nandor Tanczos' private member's bill to effectively decriminalise small amounts of cannabis.

"Prohibition is a failure. Despite having the world's highest arrest rate for cannabis, more people use it than ever before. Use went up twenty per cent in the 1990's alone.

"Prohibition causes immense harm in our communities, through the involvement of organised crime, uncontrolled sales to minors, linking pot smokers with hard drug sellers, discouraging users from seeking treatment if they need it, wasting police time, and eroding respect for the law."

"NORML supports licensing cafes to sell cannabis in a controlled environment, but any form of cannabis law reform would be an improvement over the current system, which costs the taxpayer $56 million per year, for no discernable benefit.

"The "instant fines" systems in some states in Australia led to significant improvements over states that retained prohibition, however NORML is concerned that the ease of giving out tickets compared to making arrests created an unwanted side-effect of more people being caught, and police repeatedly targeting the same users.

Nandor's bill takes care of both these side-effects, by removing the police's emergency search powers for cannabis, and setting the tickets at a reasonably affordable level.

"Nandor's opponents will predictably say that his bill 'sends the wrong message'. Young people already receive mixed messages from a law that encourages the use of the most harmful drugs (alcohol and tobacco) while dealing harshly with those who prefer cannabis. Prohibition sends the message that we cannot cope with a drug policy in line with scientific evidence and reasoned analysis."

"This election is shaping up to be a battle between those who support hypocrisy, such as United Future, and those who listen to the evidence, such as the Greens."

ENDS

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Parliament's health select committee, comprised of members from Labour, National, Greens, United Future and Act, reported in 2003 on their inquiry into the legal status of cannabis.

Their report confirmed that the current law is often applied unevenly, unfairly and unreasonably; and that cannabis law reforms overseas have not been associated with any increased cannabis use.

The inquiry report also concluded that "the current high levels of use, and the level of black economy activity indicate that the current prohibition regime is not effective in limiting cannabis use. Prohibition results in high conviction rates for a relatively minor offence, which inhibits people's education, travel and employment opportunities. Prohibition makes targeting education, prevention, harm minimisation and treatment measures difficult because users fear prosecution. It also facilitates the black market, and potentially exposes cannabis users to harder drugs ... Removing the criminal penalties for cannabis offences to some extent may alleviate these problems by providing more options for dealing with cannabis." (p. 57)

A suggested link between decriminalisation and increased use was countered by "more recent research [that] found no discernable impact on the rates of cannabis use".

The report warns that potential savings in law enforcement could be offset by non-payment of fines, while the 'net widening' effect, "mainly due to the greater ease with which a [fine] can be issued" coupled with "a high rate of non-payment of infringement fines" could lead to "clogging up" the courts.

However, they pointed out that "targeted and general education, prevention, harm minimisation and treatment measures and safe practices in using cannabis would be promulgated in an environment that is more conducive to education about cannabis harms."

Decriminalisation had been recommended by commissions of inquiry in the USA, Canada and Australia, and there was "no evidence that it would increase use, in fact evidence suggests it would make no difference."

The Drug and Alcohol Services Council of South Australia, Monitoring, Evaluation and Research Unit reported in 1991 that "It appears clear that ... a move toward more lenient laws for small scale cannabis offenses ... will not lead to increased cannabis use. Thus, we can limit cannabis use without harsh penalties." (The Effects of Cannabis Legislation in South Australia on Levels of Cannabis Use)

A 1999 study released by Curtin University's National Centre for Research into the Prevention of Drug Abuse (NCRPDA) compared the impact of a criminal conviction for a minor cannabis offence in WA, with the impacts of an infringement notice for similar offences under the decriminalisation of cannabis which has existed in South Australia since 1987. It found the prohibition of minor cannabis offences in Western Australia fails to deter cannabis use by the vast majority of those convicted, and it can have adverse impacts on their employment, relationships and accommodation, and makes it more likely that they will have further involvement with the police.

The study concluded that having a criminal conviction - and therefore a criminal record - has a range of negative impact on the lives of first time minor cannabis offenders and their families:

a.. 32% of the WA group vs only 2% of the SA infringement notice group were either sacked from a job, did not get a job they applied for, or stopped applying for some jobs as a result of their conviction;

a.. 20% of the WA group vs only 5% of the SA infringement notice group experienced relationship problems, including family disputes and separations;

a.. 16% of the WA group had to move house or lost work accommodation as a result of their conviction (compared to none of the SA infringement notice group);

a.. 32% of the WA group vs none of the SA infringement notice group identified at least one subsequent involvement with the criminal justice system related to their cannabis conviction or CEN.

NCRPDA researcher Simon Lenton - an "expert advisor" to the NZ Health Select Committee cannabis inquiry - said that 'There is often discussion in the media about the health risks of cannabis use, but little on the social harms associated with a conviction under the current total prohibition system. The latest findings show that a conviction for a minor cannabis offence can have real and detrimental impacts on peoples' lives for many years after the event that are far worse than those due to an infringement notice under the SA system ... There's not a lot of evidence that the law is deterring cannabis use."

It was important to note 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. However, more of the WA group experienced significant social costs as a result of their minor cannabis offence".

Makkai & McAllister (1997) found that South Australia's cannabis use rates are lower than several states with harsher penalties. Compared to the total prohibition model in WA, people in SA were less likely to have been offered cannabis, less likely to have tried it, less likely to have used in the last twelve months and less likely to use in a vehicle.

-----------

References:

Health Select Committee (2003) Inquiry into the public health strategies related to cannabis use and the most appropriate legal status

Lenton, S., Bennett, M., Heale, P. (1999), "The social impact of a minor cannabis offence under strict prohibition - the case of Western Australia", National Centre for Research into the Prevention of Drug Abuse, Curtin University of Technology

Makkai, T & McAllister, I., Marijuana in Australia: Patterns and Attitudes, (1997), Prepared for the National Taskforce on Cannabis. National Drug Strategy Monograph Series No. 31. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra

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