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UP In Smoke - Lava Examines The Politics Of Smoke

By Lava Magazine Staff, Courtesy of Lava Magazine

If you live in America, your Government will launch prime-time bombing attacks on remote countries to distract you from domestic issues.
If you live in New Zealand, the diversions are staged closer to home and this election year, it's a phony war on drugs. Chris Fowlie, spokesperson for the New Zealand branch of international drug law reform movement NORML, reports from the front line.

The Netherlands changed their approach to cannabis in 1976. Since that time, the number of heroin addicts has fallen every year.

They now have the lowest hard drug use rate in Europe and one of the lowest rates of HIV.

In March this year the National Government bowed to pressure from the US and its own red-neck wing and canned a proposed review of the prohibition of cannabis.

This was despite a Parliamentary inquiry which found the effects of cannabis have been 'exaggerated' and that the current law creates more harm than good. The decision to not take any action is the main part of the government's so-called 'Action Plan", presented in early March in response to the recommendations of the health select committee's inquiry into the mental health effects of cannabis.

The committee spent 8 months hearing evidence from the experts in the field, including the Ministry of Health, Otago University, the Schizophrenia Fellowship and New Zealand NORML.

The other highlights of the Action Plan, to be implemented next year if they win the election, are to make ecstasy a Class A drug and to ban pipes and bongs, as well as the usual rhetoric about increased emphasis on education and treatment.

Even a cursory inspection of what the Government is saying versus what they are doing reveals many inconsistencies. Minister of Health Wyatt Creech, in defence of the Nat's response to the report, said that to talk about the law "sends an inconsistent message to children".

But if the Government really wanted to send a consistent message about cannabis, then they would follow their own National Drug Policy and treat it consistently with New Zealand's other popular recreational drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

Cigarettes and booze are responsible for over 99% of all drug related deaths in New Zealand, but their harmful effects are (at least partly) countered through education campaigns and treatment services for those who need it, while allowing responsible users the freedom to choose. It seems that while you can get a knighthood for peddling alcohol, and pot-smoking cops get compensation, everyone else is threatened with jail.

Another main thrust of the new campaign are measures designed to stop the development of a hard drugs market here. Again, if the Government were truly interested in this, they would be reforming the law. The Netherlands changed their approach to cannabis in 1976. Since that time, the number of heroin addicts has fallen every year, and their average age has risen from 18 to 34 years.

They now have the lowest hard drug use rate in Europe and one of the lowest rates of HIV. In America, a study by the Rand Corporation in 1993 found that among the eleven states that decriminalised in the 1970's, the rates of hard drug use have fallen compared to other states. Far from being a gateway drug, it seems marijuana is a substitute for hard drugs like heroin, cocaine and alcohol.

It's also worth noting the latest statistics on cannabis use in the Netherlands. A study released in January this year by the University of Amsterdam found that just 15% of the entire population over 12 have ever tried cannabis, compared to 38% in America and 43% in New Zealand. In the Netherlands, just 2.5% are regular users compared to over 8% here. The failure of prohibition to produce any of its stated goals is reason enough to at least review the law.

Our drug laws have not been examined in over 25 years, during which time almost every statute on the books has been reviewed, changed or abandoned.

"Sending messages" is also behind their other hair-brained scheme: to ban the sale of bongs, pipes and other so-called illicit paraphernalia: they contend that the sale of these devices is akin to asking kids to spark up. The worst thing about this idea is that bongs are used to minimise any harmful effects of smoking such as heat, ash and tar, and that harm minimisation is the official basis for our newly developed National Drug Policy. They should be encouraging cannabis smokers to use pipes and water bongs to protect their own health.

The proposed ban is even more ludicrous when you think that cannabis pipes are already banned under the original 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act. Just to make sure, they banned them again as recently as 1997. The law says that any utensil or implement designed specifically for the use of an illicit substance is unlawful.

That way, things not specifically designed for pot can still be sold, like tobacco pipes, knives, teaspoons, tin foil, rolling papers and so on. And that's the way they're proposing to ban them again. This single measure best illustrates where they are coming from: they don't care about your health, they know the law is a waste of time, but they'll do it anyway to pander to their red-neck supporters.

So what do the Government have against an open and honest discussion of the evidence? Why are they running scared? It must be because it's an argument they cannot win.

Every major study on drug policy around the world has consistently backed decriminalisation. Even the police want a new approach, so they can get on with more important work.

The real reason behind all this tough on drugs nonsense is that the Government needs election year diversions to distract from their other failings. Just as Nixon invented the War on Drugs to distract Americans from Watergate, Shipley and her gang are using drugs to stop people thinking about their own incompetence.

We will only see rational and evidence-based drug policy with a change in Government. That means you must get on the electoral roll and get out and vote! Contacting your Member of Parliament is one of the most powerful things you can do to help reform New Zealand's drug laws. Write to your MP, freepost to Parliament Buildings Wellington.

Our drug laws, like in most of the rest of the world, suck. Helen Clark says that if a backbencher got the balls to get a drug reform bill going, the present pack of MPs would probably pass it into law . For your information, here's where the major parties stand on the issue.

Cabinet members Doug Graham, Maurice WIlliamson and Clem Simich favour law reform, while Shipley's inner circle of Bill English, Nick Smith, Tony Ryall and Roger Sowry are strongly opposed. Not likely to happen as long as they're in charge. The Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party Founded in 1996, the world's first cannabis law reform party got 1.66% of the party vote last election. This means that if everyone who voted ALCP last time drags along two of their friends this time, the ALCP will reach the 5% threshold and get six MPs in Parliament. Which would be a very achievable goal if ALCP voters weren't stoned all the time.

The Green Party: The Greens are the only party currently in Parliament to have a policy of cannabis law reform. The Greens promise to legalise the possession and personal cultivation of cannabis, and hold an inquiry into whether it should be legalised and how. It's essentially the same policy as the ALCP, but the Greens have a much wider policy base including a strong emphasis on social justice and environmental issues. Green MP Rod Donald has been campaigning strongly to get hemp grown here in particular, and the right of doctors to prescribe marijuana as medicine. NORML's Nandor Tanczos is likely to be the Green candidate for Auckland Central and high on the Green list. So to speak.

The Alliance: Alliance voters have the highest rate of cannabis use (aside from the ALCP), but the party is dogged by conflicting opinions, which means essentially they don't have much of a policy apart from "to look into it". While the Democrats and the Liberals favour legalisation, old- skool unionists like Jim Anderton are staunchly anti-cannabis and they probably won't do much as long as he's got the reins.

Labour: Labour doesn't have a drugs policy, although most of its members support some form of law reform. Helen Clark has stated she wants to introduce instant fines for cannabis offences, which may or may not be a better option that what we have now, depending on the attitude of the police. Either way, most Labour MPs don't perceive cannabis law reform to be important or a vote winner (Tim Barnett, Joe Hawke, Lianne Dalziel and Judith Tizard notable exceptions), and they have a populist wing (Phil Goff, George Hawkins and Mike Moore) that favour a 'tough on drugs' stance.

National: The National Party has a policy of harm minimisation, although in practice it only applies to heroin addicts (providing methadone and needle exchanges). The Nats were founded on principles of reducing state interference in the lives of individuals and upholding people's rights where they don't interfere in the rights of others, but they put that on hold when it comes to cannabis. Cabinet members Doug Graham, Maurice Williamson and Clem Simich favour law reform, while Shipley's inner circle of Bill English, Nick Smith, Tony Ryall and Roger Sowry are strongly opposed. Not likely to happen as long as they're in charge.

New Zealand First: Another party that doesn't have a drugs policy. Tu Wyllie supports law reform, while leader Winston Peters - a hard drinking and smokin' man - has only ever been heard uttering populist tough on drugs lines, although rumoured to indulge himself. He supported a referendum prior to the 1996 election (to appeal to Maori ALCP supporters) but as Treasurer actively stifled debate, saying "we have more important things to think about."

ACT: With its strong position on championing individual rights and reducing the role of government, you'd think ACT would be right into legalising and taxing the cannabis industry. ACT voters also have the strongest support for cannabis law reform (support tends to rise with higher education and income) although the lowest rate of having actually used it. ACT doesn't have a drugs policy, and the most you'll get out of Richard Prebble is "I do believe that the criminal code should be regularly reviewed. I would like to see a careful study done before I would agree to an arbitrary 'one off' reform of this part of the law."

Mauri Pacific: This party is full of contradictions. Leader Tau Henare - a (just) ex-tobacco smoker - is anti-pot to the point of obsession. He continually confuses the effects of prohibition (crime & violence, open access to cannabis, rural dependence on cannabis harvest incomes) with the effects of the drug itself, while colleague Tuku Morgan, a member of Parliament's Health select committee, is in favour of a law change and Cabinet Minister Jack Elder supports decriminalisation.

United: The unknown party's one-man-band and leader Peter Dunne says "I am opposed to any change in the existing situation". So he thinks the law is working? He likes crime and violence and kids stoned at school? Go figure.

So there you have it. If you remember to vote, try to bear all this stuff in mind.

For more info, drop in to The Hemp Store Aotearoa, 60 Queen Street, Auckland and 151 Cuba St, Wellington. Also check out www.norml.org.nz, where you can subscribe to NORML News Online: e mail hempstor@ihug.co.nz with 'subscribe' in the subject line.

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