The Great Marijuana Debate Seminar
University of Waikato, Hamilton
1:30 p.m. Saturday 30 July 1994
Thank you for the invitation to address this seminar on marijuana. I congratulate this university on its ongoing commitment to providing opportunities for the public to debate and discuss current issues. Marijuana is certainly a current issue. Last Sunday’s Frontline television programme dedicated half its time to the Selwyn by-election and the other half to the debate on the use and legal status of marijuana. The inane treatment of the issue of cannabis by Frontline, however, should not put us off discussing the matter with a view to improving public policy.
The Drugs Advisory Committee is about to report to the Government on issues relating to cannabis. I hope that report will foreshadow the development and implementation of better public policy in this area. That is what I believe we need.
As a politician committee to the health and well-being of New Zealanders I wish to offer a public policy perspective on the marijuana debate. What I have to say is based on advice given to me as Minister of Health by the Drugs Advisory Committee in 1989. I trust that the Committee’s advice to Government in 1994 will be consistent with its advice of five years ago. It is unfortunate that the current Minister of Health has tried to rule out sensible debate on the issue with her petty politicking. There is no sign whatsoever that she has an open mind to good public health advice on the issue. For the record let me state once again that I am opposed to the use of cannabis on health grounds and advocate against its use as I do against the use of tobacco.
New Zealand needs public policy on all drugs which is based on a recognition of the harm they cause - to the health of individuals, families and communities. We need public policy on drugs which is based on a health perspective. We need to reduce the demand for and usage of drugs, and thereby reduce the damage drugs cause. It has been a battle to get appropriate public policy on tobacco, and there are still grave deficiencies in public policy on alcohol. Indeed the Government’s decision not to continue to block brand advertising of alcohol on television and radio two years ago was a major step backwards in public alcohol policy.
I have always seen my role as a politician as being to contribute to rational and sensible public policy development and implementation. Contributing to policy development means being prepared to initiate and be part of public discussion and consideration of particular issues. It means standing up to vested interest groups and insisting on rational consideration of the available evidence. That was my approach to the use of tobacco. The effect of the comprehensive approach taken in the 'eighties to reduce tobacco usage in New Zealand was dramatic. From 1984 - 1992 there was a 42 per cent decline in tobacco consumption. We should learn from that success. It certainly wasn't based on prohibition!
Because of my concern to reduce the toll of death and illness caused by tobacco, I was prepared to stick my political neck out and stand up to the powerful pressure exerted by the tobacco industry and its acolytes. 1 did not shy away then and I will not shy away now from having the real issues relating to drug use across the board debated, the myths exposed, and sound public policy developed and implemented.
I am concerned about the use and misuse of both legal and illegal drugs. I believe we need to review all the available information and then design a more effective, multi-faceted approach to the use of drugs which aims to improve the health of New Zealanders and to reduce the harm inflicted by drugs.
There is a great deal of information available on marijuana and the extent of its use. I cannot in my address today do justice to all the information which is available. What I want to do is make a contribution from a public policy perspective to what I hope will be ongoing rational debate on policy towards marijuana. The development of good public policy involves weighing up both the advantages and disadvantages of the options and determining what the optimal policy balance is.
Making good public policy requires us to face facts. So what are the facts about marijuana and its use in New Zealand?
You will all know that the cultivation, supply, possession, and use of cannabis in its various forms is currently illegal. That has not always been the case. It was not until 1927 that legislation was passed in New Zealand to restrict the manufacture and trade in Indian hemp as it was then called. Historical and political factors, rather than sound public policy, have led to the different treatment of various drugs.
New Zealand’s approach to marijuana today is a combination of total prohibition of marijuana under the Misuse of Drugs legislation, and limited and largely ineffective education on the drug undertaken by state and voluntary agencies.
Good public policy requires us to ask: is our current approach working? Does prohibition reduce the supply and use of marijuana? I submit that it does not.
Prohibition seeks to reduce cultivation, supply, possession, and use by making all such acts subject to legal sanctions. That is supposed to have the effect of cutting down the number of people prepared to associate in any way with the drug and of keeping prices high in order to limit consumption. But the effect of prohibition is also to drive supply underground to what has become an increasingly violent black market. So often the reports of murder in the backblocks of Northland, for example, reveal linkages with the drug trade.
Does prohibition actually reduce the demand for marijuana? Some hope that the symbolic effect of expressing non-acceptance or disapproval of the drug may inhibit use and boost support for initiatives aimed at preventing harm or use. Prohibition might in theory provide parents with some leverage in exhorting children not to use drugs and young people with a means to resist peer pressure. Frankly I doubt that it is effective in either respect. The 1990 survey of drug use in New Zealand found that social pressure accounted for only four per cent of those who stopped or limited their use of marijuana. The main reasons people stopped or didn't start using marijuana were health reasons and personal preference. Prohibition is certainly not stopping people trying marijuana.
The Associate Minister of Health told participants at the Cannabis and Health Conference held in Wellington in October last year- that up to one million New Zealanders may have tried cannabis at some time in their life. Marijuana has been tried by an estimated 43 per cent of New Zealanders, including a quarter of young people surveyed who were aged fifteen to seventeen years (1990 survey of drug use in New Zealand published by the Alcohol and Public Health Research Unit 1993). Marijuana has become the most commonly used illicit drug among young people. It is estimated that ten to fifteen per cent young people will have used cannabis by age fifteen.
The 1990 survey revealed that only eight per cent of New Zealanders who have tried marijuana stopped or limited their use because of a fear of the law or of getting caught. Only 12% of New Zealanders in the 1990 survey on drug use gave the risk of the law, the police, or of getting caught as a reason for not trying marijuana. These findings scarcely suggest that the current law is any deterrent to use of cannabis.
What is the cost of such widespread experimentation with marijuana? The medical evidence supports the view that cannabis is harmful, particularly chronic heavy use over a period of time. It is potentially carcinogenic. It can damage the lungs and airways. It affects male and female reproductive systems. Marijuana is said to affect speech, comprehension, sleep patterns, memory, cognition, emotions, psychomotor performance and eyesight. It may well affect the ability to drive a motor vehicle. There is some evidence that it precipitates the onset and aggravation of schizophrenia and other mental illness. So, of course, may many other factors.
But having acknowledged the bad effects, one must also acknowledge that sufferers from some medical and physical conditions, such as glaucoma, and such as tetraplegia as seen on the Frontline programme, say that cannabis is the only drug which offers them any relief whatsoever. That is the basis for some support among medical practitioners for legal supply of cannabis for specified conditions.
Good public policy considers all the costs. It the approach taken to a problem results in more social and economic costs than benefits to society, another approach that is more health promoting must be considered. Prohibition is costly, both in terms of social harm and the economic costs of enforcement. Prohibition may actually act to drive families apart as parents react adversely to the illicit habits of their children. It also breeds disrespect for the law amongst young people. Then by treating marijuana use as illegal, we label the estimated one million New Zealanders who have used it as criminals. Prohibition actually causes harms by involving otherwise law-abiding citizens who are marijuana smokers in the criminal scene.
In 1993, 3777 New Zealanders were sentenced for possessing or using cannabis. In 1993 there were 23,236 reported cannabis offences, up from 19,324 in 1992. Offenders are predominantly young and male. Youthful indiscretion resulting in a criminal conviction may restrict employment and travel opportunities for the rest of a person’s life.
The costs of enforcing prohibition are high. In 1990, $13.5 million of public money was spent on the prison, probation, court, and legal aid costs of enforcing the law on cannabis. The costs to the police come on top of that. The Minister of Police has stated that the police spend more than $17 million per year policing the cannabis law. It is hard to defend spending on that scale enforcing a law which has little effect in deterring current and future users of marijuana. The interim report of the Prime Minister’s Crime Prevention Action Group acknowledged that strict punitive measures against individual marijuana users are costly and counter-productive.
The amount spent on cannabis law enforcement vastly outweighs the $1.6 million said to be spent last year by the Government on funding drug education in schools. I understand however, that the existing programmes are not particularly effective. The truth is that prohibition inhibits effective health promotion. People are reluctant to explore issues honestly when to do so may reveal that they have committed and offence punishable by imprisonment! For much the same reason it was not possible to combat AIDS among young men effectively in New Zealand until first decriminalisation of homosexuality, and then protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and health status were legislated for.
Prohibition is not good public policy. It has not been able to reduce the demand for or the supply of marijuana. Obviously it can’t reduce the harm to health caused by marijuana and it has harmful social effects in criminalising citizens who are otherwise law abiding.
Good public policy requires us to look at all the options and weigh up the relative merits of alternative approaches. So what are the alternatives to outright prohibition?
1. Maintain prohibition but increase use of the police diversion scheme.
Under this option prohibition is maintained purportedly to effect a reduction in the supply of and demand for marijuana. It is supplemented by the police diversion scheme which aims to reduce the harm caused by catching users up in the criminal justice system. New Zealand policy to some extent currently incorporates a police diversion scheme. Where police diversion schemes operate, the police have discretion whether to prosecute through the court or to reach agreement with the offender on an alternative punishment. A review of the operation of this scheme by Young and Cameron for the Department of Justice found that the police some cases of marijuana possession, but that practice varied from region to region. The major criticisms of the police diversion scheme are the propensity for regional variation and discriminatory use of the power to divert.
Concerns about the effectiveness of prohibition remain under this option.
Legalisation is another option, but not one which is widely advocated. [??] The dominance of the black market over supply would be reduced by legalising marijuana. Efforts to restrict the demand for marijuana would be based on health promotion, and restrictions on its availability, as with tobacco. The social and economic costs associated with use would be reduced. The health effects would be tackled through health education to deter use. But health education messages about the drug may be more difficult to impart if marijuana is legalised. Liberalising the law to that extent could suggest that the use of marijuana is condoned. Few countries have actually legalised marijuana. I understand that in Spain drug possession or use is not subject to criminal sanctions, and that there are reports that Germany has legalised the possession of a small quantity of marijuana. The Prime Minister’s Crime Prevention Group found no convincing case for legalising marijuana in this country [...but then they would say that, wouldn’t they ]
3. Partial decriminalisation of marijuana
Another alternative is the partial decriminalisation of marijuana. This is the approach adopted in a number of states and territories, including South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. The drug is not legalised. Marijuana use becomes a minor offence. The penalty for possession for personal use is an instant fine where guilt is admitted. The alleged offender also has the right to go to court.
Does partial decriminalisation work. The experience of countries with some form of decriminalisation, such as South Australia, The Netherlands, and the United States, is that decriminalisation is not associated with an increase in use and can operate alongside community prevention and education initiatives. I believe that decriminalisation is likely to lead to a significant reduction in the costs of cannabis law enforcement.
Because partial decriminalisation would be statute based, it would not be subject to wide variation in policy implementation or the risk of discrimination in police practice. [ how so? ] It avoids the costly and potentially destructive experience of a court appearance and criminal experience. The effects of an instant fine are not disastrous for the future of someone who has experimented with the drug or been a small time casual user, and is unlikely to come in contact with the criminal law for any other reason.
Partial decriminalisation is the approach which I have publicly stated I favour based on the available evidence at this time. It is consistent with the Prime Minister’s own Crime Prevention Action Group whose working group proposed in April last year that personal use, modest cultivation, or use of the drug could be of the character of a ‘misdemeanour’ rather than a criminal offence .... the element of conviction would be removed .... there would be a fine but no court conviction .... funds derived from fines could be directed to drug education and treatment programmes.”
There was also considerable support for such an approach among key informants interviewed in the preparation of the Background Paper on Cannabis Policy in New Zealand, prepared by Abel and Casswell and published in May 1993. In my view partial decriminalisation strikes the right balance between not imposing a heavy criminal stigma and maintaining a clear message that marijuana use not desirable for health reasons. The black market could well be defused and education on harm minimisation could be more successful.
A policy of partially decriminalising marijuana would have to be combined with effective health promotion campaigns. It is my view that the resources we currently spend on enforcement would be better spent on initiatives to discourage and prevent marijuana use and on other socially useful purposes. $30 million per annum diverted from detecting, detaining, judging, and punishing cannabis offenders would be welcomed by our schools and our health services!
Good public policy must be based on reality - not on an image of the drug free world the way we would like it to be, but on the reality of how the world actually is. That is why I reject the view that our approach should be one of prohibition. It does not work. I repeat: a quarter of young New Zealanders aged between fifteen and seventeen have tried marijuana as have 43% of the entire population. I do not believe that we ought to make criminals out of those users.
I say it is time to revisit our current policy on marijuana, and to implement more appropriate and effective public policy.
I would like to end my address today by reissuing the challenge Helen Shaw made at the Cannabis and Health conference in Wellington last October to
· have the courage to use to best effect the available information
and understandings on marijuana
· commission sound research to provide a scientific base to underpin present and future policies and programmes; and
· be honest and address the real issues (not just the politically safe ones) in a sensible productive and purposeful way.
If we can explore alternative policies with open minds and without petty political agendas intruding, I believe a consensus on a new, more rational approach may well emerge. My address today is an attempt to encourage that.
Good public policy demands that we review and analyse all available information. Then through a process of public discussion and debate we should develop reasoned, logical proposals which will be effective in reducing the demand for marijuana and reducing the harm to health which marijuana causes