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Bud, chronic, dak, dope, ganja, grass, maryjane, reefer and skunk. We all know the slang terms for cannabis. Half of us have tried it, and one-in-eight uses it regularly.

But is cannabis a glorified gateway to harder drugs and suicide, or some sort of herbal cure-all, benignly bestowed by Mother Nature? Should we be selling it from Courtenay Place cafes, or cracking down harder on cannabis smokers and growers?

The New Zealand Drug Foundation wants to start a national conversation about cannabis. Executive Director Ross Bell says it’s high time we took cannabis out of the ‘too-hard basket’ and started talking about it sensibly and honestly.

“Cannabis is New Zealand’s favourite illicit drug, but it receives scant attention from politicians, policy makers or the media. When it is discussed, evidence is often discarded in favour of myth, misinformation and polarised posturing.”

Mr Bell says a number of issues have come to light recently that are of significant importance considering the drug’s widespread use. These include the health effects of smoking cannabis, whether there’s any valid medicinal use, its links with mental illness, use of the drug by school students, driving under the influence, and the pros and cons of decriminalisation.

He says politicians are happy to spend a lot of time on party pills and P because they know they have the public on side. They don’t want to talk about cannabis, because it’s not seen as a vote winning issue.

“Parliament hasn’t touched cannabis since the Health Commission Inquiry in 2000, which did make a number of recommendations. However, debate was stifled by the 2003 coalition agreement between the Government and United Future, which effectively froze the legal status of cannabis.

“But while politicians ignore the pot problem, its associated social harms continue. We need Government to take the lead in formulating good, well-researched policy discussion based on best evidence. We need the addiction treatment, public health and drug policy sectors to get vocal and inject their knowledge into the debate as well.

“Misinformation and hysteria don’t help a society deal effectively with cannabis use, and stigmas around use and fear of prosecution often prohibit cannabis-dependent people from seeking much needed help.”

The New Zealand Drug Foundation has kicked off the discussion by dedicating the November issue of its quarterly magazine, Matters of Substance, to the cannabis debate. Leading drug policy researchers, advocates and commentators have provided contributions about cannabis law and policy.

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