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I’m not convinced cannabis deserves all the attention it gets.
When it comes to drug policy reform, shouldn’t we be looking at all substances, à la Portugal, rather than single out cannabis? That’s certainly the view of the New Zealand Law Commission, which recommended our obsolete drug law be replaced with a cautioning and health referral process for all substances, albeit with a fast track referral for more harmful drugs like methamphetamine.
The Commission’s argument is that New Zealand’s ‘drug problem’ is fundamentally a health and social issue best addressed through health-focussed drug law which seeks to reduce harm from all substances, not just the common one. We strongly back this position.
Yet much of the drug law debate in New Zealand, and globally, is dominated by cannabis.
I understand why this is; cannabis is the world’s most popular illicit drug. 4 of the 5 percent of the world’s adult population that uses illicit drugs use cannabis. 385,000 adult New Zealanders have used cannabis in the past year and about half of us have tried it; 9 percent of whom will be cannabis dependent. The total social cost of cannabis in New Zealand is $314 million, excluding the cost of enforcing cannabis prohibition (which is $116 million). So any talk about drug policy reform necessarily will focus on this high prevalence.
Daily, it seems, a growing evidence base is emerging on the health and social harms of cannabis. Last year New Zealand research received global attention when it found a link between early and heavy use of cannabis and IQ loss. This month other research queried whether cannabis use increases stroke risk. A new Canadian study highlighted the road safety risks of cannabis impaired driving. Rather than supporting the status quo criminal justice response to cannabis, this evidence reinforces a challenge against it, and towards a new public health approach where we prioritise prevention, harm reduction and treatment interventions.
You must excuse the serious cognitive dissonance displayed in this editorial. I’ve argued that cannabis shouldn’t get special attention in drug policy debates, yet, based on shear prevalence alone the attention is deserved. I’m sure I’m not the only one confused and, to help, the Drug Foundation has decided to convene an international symposium starring cannabis.
To our international friends, I extend a very warm invitation to visit us in late November this year to attend New Zealand’s second “Cannabis and Health” conference. Our website provides more detail.