Peter Dunne Letter to Editors and Parents On Drugs
28 August 2000
An Open Letter to Editors and Parents:
As a parent of teenagers, I worry often at the pressure young people face today about drugs. Like you, when I hear the stories, from the teenagers themselves and also their parents, about their experiences and fears, I become more concerned. Good, decent kids from good, decent families are having their lives turned upside down by cannabis, which, it seems, is now almost more available than alcohol.
And when I see the campaigns being mounted by self-proclaimed icons of the young like Nandor Tanczos MP and his colleagues to decriminalise the use of cannabis, on the grounds it is no more harmful than alcohol, I become genuinely fearful for the future. It seems that the decriminalisation argument is being won almost by default. After all, the Government is presently reviewing the cannabis laws and the Minister of Health, despite promoting strong views against tobacco, is not nearly as outspoken on the use of cannabis. There are mixed signals everywhere. No wonder young people are confused.
It is time to take a stand, and replace the emotional debate about cannabis with some plain common sense.
It is too easy to say that cannabis is a "soft" drug, no worse than alcohol and that its users are harming no one but themselves, but none of these arguments really stack up. There are too many young people suffering today because of regular and prolonged cannabis use, and moving on to other, more sinister forms of drug abuse. The argument that cannabis is no more harmful than alcohol is also quite false because alcohol and cannabis are different substances with different effects on people. Both are potentially risky and dangerous, and we should be aiming to minimise - not equalise - the risks associated with both.
But before we go any further, surely we should be trying to find out how widespread the use of cannabis is? Yet we do not test in the workplace, school grounds, the roadside, or elsewhere for cannabis use. Maybe it is time we did so. The best thing we can do for our children is to reduce the risks they face, and a large part of doing that must be finding out who the users are and how they are affected.
One thing I do agree on with those who promote decriminalisation is that the current law is not working. But decriminalisation will not work either. If the law is not working, you do not make it work by getting rid of it. Rather, you make the changes needed to make things work.
With cannabis, we need a comprehensive approach based on thorough testing to find out who is using it and in what circumstances. At the same time, we should be looking at depenalisation where people caught with small amounts of cannabis for personal use would be given a small fine (say $100) and referred to a treatment centre for assessment and counselling. If they refused that option, then they would be put before the Court and processed in the normal way. People with larger amounts of cannabis would be treated as drug dealers in the same way other drug dealers are.
We all know our kids are our best assets, but we are often not too good at backing them up. I fear that at present we are leaving our kids unsupported and uncertain about cannabis, and we have to change that. Making it clear that cannabis use is unacceptable is an important message we must give our young people, but we have to go one step further and reinforce that through positive steps like those I have outlined.
We owe it to our children to stand up for their future. Now is the time for all of us who share that commitment to come together to make sensible decisions on the cannabis issue, because on issues like this we only have one chance to get it right.
As a parent and a politician, I stand four square for our children. I know you do too, and I therefore hope you will join me on this issue.
Hon Peter Dunne MP, Leader, United New Zealand