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Drug legislation and policy tend to focus too much on enforcement and tough-talk and too little on evidence about what really works, a visiting expert told the Healthy Drug Law Symposium in Wellington today. The result is often irrational laws that cause considerable harm, he said.

Jeremy Sare is former Head of Drug Classification at the Home Office in Westminster. He has worked as Secretary to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and is currently a policy consultant for the Beckley Foundation’s Cannabis Commission.

He said the UK Government’s recent decision to reclassify cannabis from Class C back up to Class B made little sense and demonstrated how often drug policy is formulated on the basis of ideology and exaggerated media reports – and despite scientific evidence and advice to the contrary.

“No one is saying cannabis use is harmless, but it is nowhere near as harmful as other Class B drugs such as amphetamines and barbiturates.

“Significant police resources that could be deployed towards much more harmful drugs like heroin and methamphetamine get diverted away as a result of this sort of policy, and many cannabis users will receive a criminal record for what most would agree is a relatively trivial offence.”

Mr Sare said many British Cabinet Ministers, including the Home Secretary, have admitted experimenting with cannabis at university.

“Had any of them been arrested for this youthful indiscretion there is no chance they would have become Members of Parliament let alone Cabinet Ministers, and that alone demonstrates how senseless criminal convictions are for possessing small amounts of cannabis.”

Mr Sare said the UK Government’s claim that strong cannabis laws send a strong signal to young people about drug use was ‘nonsense on stilts’.

“Overstating the dangers of cannabis actually undermines the credibility of drug messages. Focus groups show that many young people who smoke cannabis occasionally or even regularly would not consider taking harder drugs. They obviously know there’s a difference.”

He said the UK Government is even defying the measured advice of its own experts.

“A Statutory Advisory Body has been asked for three separate cannabis reports in the last six years. Each has concluded the causal link between cannabis use and developing psychosis is weak and does not justify a re-classification of the drug.”

NZ Drug Foundation Director, Ross Bell, says there are things New Zealand can learn from the UK approach.

“There is no evidence that tough laws have a deterrent effect on cannabis use. All they do is further marginalise people, making them harder to reach while tying up police and court resources.”

Mr Bell said more informed public discussion is needed so we can get beyond hype and exaggeration and find evidenced based law and policy that will reduce drug harm and create an environment of openness so people needing help can get it.

In New Zealand cannabis is a Class C drug. The maximum penalty for possession is three months jail and/or a $500 fine, with a maximum sentence of eight years for cultivation or supply.

Conservative estimates are that at least half of all New Zealanders have tried cannabis, with nearly 80 percent of young people (under 25 years old) having tried it.

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