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Two heavyweight international drug policy experts will be debating whether a legalised market for cannabis is the best option to reduce harm from cannabis.

The debate between former White House advisor on drug policy and now Director of the Drug Policy Institute and Assistant Professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Florida Kevin Sabet, and senior policy advisor for Transform Steve Rolles will be happening during the New Zealand Drug Foundation’s international symposium on cannabis and health.

“In this moderated debate we hope to shed more light than heat on the contested world of cannabis policy and law,” New Zealand Drug Foundation Executive Director Ross Bell said.

“Two US states have legalised cannabis and Uruguay looks to be the first country to do the same. But is regulation the right answer or will it open the door to a heavily commercialised market dominated by ‘Big Cannabis’?

“As the world begins to seriously explore options for legal market regulation, what are the potential risks and benefits especially here in New Zealand?,” Mr Bell said.

Mr Rolles, who will be arguing for a regulated cannabis market, said the point of legalising cannabis is to gain control of the substance and protect public health.

“Prohibition doesn’t improve public health, it actually endangers public health. It doesn’t protect children, it imperils children. It doesn’t reduce crime, it fuels crime. It’s very expensive and is delivering terrible outcomes.

“New Zealand has prohibition on cannabis and yet you have massively high rates of cannabis use. This doesn’t suggest prohibition is a very effective way of reducing cannabis use or the health harms it causes.

“Cannabis use has been rising around the world, year on year, for 50 years. So for a policy that’s supposed to reduce cannabis use it’s a startling failure.”

Mr Sabet, who will be arguing harm from cannabis can be reduced without legalising, said his biggest worry is ‘Big Cannabis’.

“We have had battles with big tobacco and the alcohol industry for almost 100 years,” Mr Sabet said.

“Why would we want to usher in the cannabis industry? Then we are going to have public battles going through the next 100 years.

“These industries don’t make money off of the majority of people who might use responsibly. They make money off of the minority that use a larger volume of the drug and use it very often.”

Mr Sabet also said that cannabis is probably the most misunderstood drug and that whether it is grades slipping or mental health problems years down the track the negative health effects are not always immediate.

“Cannabis does not produce a dramatic overdose or the physical problems instantly that other drugs can sometimes produce — like heroin or cocaine or pharmaceuticals.

“A lot of people brush cannabis off as not really a problem and most people have an okay time but they don’t see the effects right in front of them.

“We can emphasise more on prevention, education, intervention and treatment, last on the criminal justice system but we don’t need to fully legalise the drug in order to right any wrongs of current policy,” Mr Sabet said.

Other speakers joining Messers Rolles and Sabet to discuss the legal state of cannabis will be announced closer to the symposium.

What: The Great Cannabis Debate at the 2013 International Drug Policy Symposium. Through the maze: Cannabis and Health
Where: Rendezvous Hotel, 71 Mayoral Drive, Auckland
When: 11am – 1pm, 29 November, 2013
Info: www.drugfoundation.org.nz/cannabis-and-health

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