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Harsh cannabis laws defy good sense – Expert

NZ Drug Foundation / NZ Society on Alcohol and Drug Dependence


Media release: 19 February 200_9

Harsh cannabis laws defy good sense – Expert

Drug legislation and policy tend to focus too much on enforcement and tough-talk and too little on evidence about what really works, a visiting expert told the Healthy Drug Law Symposium in Wellington today. The result is often irrational laws that cause considerable harm, he said.

Jeremy Sare is former Head of Drug Classification at the Home Office in Westminster. He has worked as Secretary to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and is currently a policy consultant for the Beckley Foundation’s Cannabis Commission.

He said the UK Government’s recent decision to reclassify cannabis from Class C back up to Class B made little sense and demonstrated how often drug policy is formulated on the basis of ideology and exaggerated media reports – and despite scientific evidence and advice to the contrary.

“No one is saying cannabis use is harmless, but it is nowhere near as harmful as other Class B drugs such as amphetamines and barbiturates.

“Significant police resources that could be deployed towards much more harmful drugs like heroin and methamphetamine get diverted away as a result of this sort of policy, and many cannabis users will receive a criminal record for what most would agree is a relatively trivial offence.”

Mr Sare said many British Cabinet Ministers, including the Home Secretary, have admitted experimenting with cannabis at university.

“Had any of them been arrested for this youthful indiscretion there is no chance they would have become Members of Parliament let alone Cabinet Ministers, and that alone demonstrates how senseless criminal convictions are for possessing small amounts of cannabis.”

Mr Sare said the UK Government’s claim that strong cannabis laws send a strong signal to young people about drug use was ‘nonsense on stilts’.

“Overstating the dangers of cannabis actually undermines the credibility of drug messages. Focus groups show that many young people who smoke cannabis occasionally or even regularly would not consider taking harder drugs. They obviously know there’s a difference.”

He said the UK Government is even defying the measured advice of its own experts.

“A Statutory Advisory Body has been asked for three separate cannabis reports in the last six years. Each has concluded the causal link between cannabis use and developing psychosis is weak and does not justify a re-classification of the drug.”

NZ Drug Foundation Director, Ross Bell, says there are things New Zealand can learn from the UK approach.

“There is no evidence that tough laws have a deterrent effect on cannabis use. All they do is further marginalise people, making them harder to reach while tying up police and court resources.”

Mr Bell said more informed public discussion is needed so we can get beyond hype and exaggeration and find evidenced based law and policy that will reduce drug harm and create an environment of openness so people needing help can get it.

In New Zealand cannabis is a Class C drug. The maximum penalty for possession is three months jail and/or a $500 fine, with a maximum sentence of eight years for cultivation or supply.

Conservative estimates are that at least half of all New Zealanders have tried cannabis, with nearly 80 percent of young people (under 25 years old) having tried it.

The invitation-only International Drug Policy Symposium – Through the Maze: Healthy Drug Law, is being held in Wellington as a precursor to a March meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna where the direction of global drug policy for the next 10 years will be set. Delegates will also discuss domestic issues, including the review of New Zealand’s 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act.

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More about Jeremy Sare
Former Head of Drug Legislation and Classification at the Home Office, UK
Former Secretary to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

British drug policy has, over the last 40 years, suffered from undue emphasis on enforcement and tough-talking. For a brief period, Ministers accepted a more rational assessment of the relative harms of drugs. However, the Government has more recently abandoned the evidence-based approach and now even defies the measured advice of its own experts.”

Jeremy Sare is a freelance journalist based in Suffolk, England. He regularly writes for The Guardian and New Statesman on subjects of drug control. His broad knowledge comes from holding a variety of official posts within the UK’s Home Office. As Head of Drug Classification at the Home Office, Jeremy managed the team tasked to review UK’s drug classification system.

For three years prior, he was Head of Drug Legislation at the Drugs Strategy Directorate. He worked on issues of cannabis reclassification, and was also responsible for changing ketamine and GHB to become controlled drugs.

Jeremy recently took on a consultancy position with the Beckley Foundation.


ENDS

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