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Let's talk about pot

nov 07 end cannabis prohibition

Bud, chronic, skunk,mull, ganja, dak, reefer, dope, pot, maryjane.

There’s no shortage of slang for this drug, but it’s a drug not often talked about. When it is, evidence is often discarded in lieu of myth, misconception and polarized positions.

We’re talking about cannabis, New Zealand’s favourite (illicit) drug. About half of us have tried it, and one in eight uses it regularly. But for all its popularity, cannabis receives scant attention from politicians, policy makers and the media. Instead, rightly or wrongly, we’ve invested much of our attention, resources and headlines into methamphetamine and the party pill phenomenon.

It has been hugely frustrating watching hours of politicians’ time spent debating, making laws, remaking laws, promulgating regulations and ignoring regulations for party pills. Hours have been spent by officials servicing ministers and MPs all het up about these pills, and this organisation has spent hours on policy analysis, health promotion and media advocacy on party pills. Then there’s the wads of money invested in party pill research, and so on.

To put it bluntly, party pills are undeserving of so much attention, and cannabis remains largely forgotten or ignored by this 48th Parliament.

The last time Parliament touched the issue was the Health Committee inquiry into the public health strategies related to cannabis use and its most appropriate legal status. The inquiry began in 2000, but was delayed by an election. Once the new committee carried over the inquiry and reported back in 2003, the coalition agreement between the Government and United Future meant that no change could be made to the legal status of cannabis, and little action was taken on other key recommendations.

It’s time law makers remembered this popular drug and started talking about it. Ignoring it doesn’t make the harm go away. It’s also time the addiction treatment, public health and drug policy sectors and wider public talk about cannabis again.

We aim to start this national conversation with these essays in which we’ve invited leading drug policy researchers, advocates and commentators to write about cannabis law and policy. Wayne Hall outlines the challenges in formulating cannabis policy, Simon Lenton discusses how penalty regimes may be used to reduce harm and Chris Fowlie puts the case for ending prohibition. Matthew Hooten canvasses political party positions on cannabis law reform and suggests there’s little chance of liberalisation in the short term. His essay is informed by a UMR Research poll showing no public appetite for law change. Michael B shares his experience of cannabis dependence.

While legal status gets the most attention in public and political discussions, the conversation needs to be about much more than that. Future editions of Matters of Substance will address drugs in schools, addiction treatment services, youth health and health promotion, and the role of the media in advancing policy discussions.

We want everyone to take part in this conversation: We invite your comment and feedback. You can find out more and sign up on the Let’s Talk About Pot page of our website.

In an ideal world, public policies towards cannabis would be informed by both evidence on the personal harms it causes and social and economic evaluations of the costs and benefits of alternative policies in minimising these harms. A paucity of both types of evidence is a major challenge to the development of such “evidence-based” policies towards cannabis use. Wayne Hall.

The current high levels of use and the level of black market activity indicate that the current prohibition regime is not effective in limiting cannabis use. Prohibition results in high conviction rates for a relatively minor offence, inhibiting people’s education, travel and employment opportunities. Prohibition makes targeting education, prevention, harm minimisation and treatment measures difficult because users fear prosecution. It also facilitates the black market and potentially exposes cannabis users to harder drugs. Chris Fowlie

Two ways some jurisdictions have tried to reduce cannabis-related harm is by changing the laws that apply to cannabis (de jure changes), or by modifying the way these laws are enforced by police (de facto changes). Simon Lenton

The next 12 months will not be fruitful for those wanting a serious policy debate about possible changes to our cannabis laws, but there may be an opening for such a debate during the 2008–11 Parliament. Matthew Hooton

I awoke this morning to a flurry of colourful and fantastic insights for my story on cannabis. By the time I made it to my desk, all those wonderful ideas had dissolved like smoke in the wind. Michael B

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