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Cannabis conversation must be evidence-based

Cannabis conversation must be evidence-based

Advocates of evidence-based cannabis laws today commended the New Zealand Drug Foundation's efforts in kick-starting a rational conversation about cannabis, but said they risked falling into the same trap they sought to avoid.

Chris Fowlie, spokesperson for the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said he was pleased to be invited to present ideas for effective cannabis laws in the latest issue of the Drug Foundation newsletter.

"Whatever your take on the health effects of cannabis – and we all have our opinions – it is clear that prohibition has not worked, and a drugs policy re-think is in order," said Mr Fowlie in a guest column written for Matters of Substance.

However NORML said that by featuring a cliché-ridden anecdotal story from someone formerly dependent on cannabis, the Drug Foundation was not reflecting the typical experience of most cannabis users.

Parliament's Health Select Committee noted in its 2003 cannabis inquiry report that the Christchurch Health and Development Study had found "for the majority of occasional recreational cannabis users there is no evidence to suggest that usage has harmful effects" and that those who do experience harm "tend to come from already socially disadvantaged groups and have pre-existing problems."

"The starting point for a conversation about cannabis should be an acknowledgement that most users suffer no harm. Cannabis can even be beneficial in the case of medicinal users," said Mr Fowlie.

"There also needs to be an acknowledgement by all sides that laws themselves can create harm, often in excess of the harm caused by the use of drugs."

In the Drug Foundation newsletter two Australian researchers who were both expert witnesses to the cannabis inquiry point the way toward an evidence-based cannabis policy:

"The political process should take into account evidence on both the harms caused by cannabis use, and those that arise from the social policies we implement to prevent its use and resulting harm," said Professor Wayne Hall of the School of Population Health, University of Queensland.

"Taken as a whole, this research finds that removing criminal penalties for cannabis possession and use does not result in higher rates of cannabis use, but does reduce the adverse social impacts of conviction in terms of employment, further contact with the criminal justice system etc," wrote Associate Professor Simon Lenton, Deputy Director at the National Drug Research Institute in Perth.

NORML was not concerned with the conclusion reached by Matthew Hooten, an Auckland public relations consultant. In the newsletter Mr Hooten says there is "no chance of cannabis liberalisation", based on a poll conducted by UMR which had asked whether cannabis laws should be made "tougher" or "more liberal". Mr Fowlie said these were subjective terms that meant different things to different people.

"If tougher means, for example, restricting access by minors, then regulating cannabis sales with a minimum purchase age would best achieve that outcome," said Mr Fowlie.

Successive opinion polls have found strong support for cannabis law reform. A UMR Insight poll published in The Dominion in August 2000 found sixty per cent supported changing the law. More recently, a TV3 poll in November 2006 found 63% support for legalising cannabis for pain relief.

- ENDS -

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