It's not exactly news that our criminal prohibition on possessing marijuana is a really bad policy. But a bunch of news stories this week serve to remind us just how bad it is.

One of the great things about my local paper, the Otago Daily Times, is that it still prints daily reports of all the trials that take place in each of the region's various local courts. For an insight into the manifold frailties and foibles of humanity, as well as a lot of sadness and the occasional spot of humour, it is hard to beat. I read it every day.

Friday's edition, however, really irritated me. It contained an account of two cases involving individuals caught growing small amounts of marijuana in their own homes for their own personal use. The first was a man in his 40s whom, the case account intimated, is suffering from a serious medical condition for which cannabis is a palliative treatment. Nevertheless, due to the fact that he had previous drug cultivation convictions (and due to his possession of an unlicensed firearm for reasons entirely unrelated to the drugs), he was sentenced to a period of community detention - meaning that the taxpayer will be paying people to check up him for weeks to come to make sure he stays at his home and so doesn't ... what, smoke cannabis in his home for pain relief?

The second was a man in his 70s, who had used cannabis for many years because he liked doing so. As this was the first time he had appeared in court, he was discharged without conviction - but only after paying $1000 to charity and facing the inconvenience, cost and stress of having his home searched by the police, charges laid in court and waiting on what sentence the judge would decide to apply to him. Plus, as his case worked through the system, he missed traveling overseas to witness a relative's graduation ceremony - a memory lost to the family as a whole.

What irritated me about these reported cases is that they are just so unnecessary. Because they came in the same week as media reported on a Treasury think-piece, uncovered and released by the same Nelson lawyer, Sue Grey, who worked out that personally importing medical cannabis is lawful. This think piece suggested that not only does keeping marijuana illegal directly impose hundreds-of-millions of dollars in enforcement costs, it also deprives the Government of some $150 million in potential excise revenue (or, to put that number in perspective, some three Housing NZ dividends a year). And it also fosters an illegal market largely controlled by criminal groups, results in hundreds of people annually being labelled as "criminals" for just doing something that they enjoy, while having minimal apparent impact on the numbers of people who actually engage in the targeted activity.

Such a policy is, to co-opt Bill English's verdict on our general prison policies back in 2011, a "moral and fiscal failure". And as my ODT editorialised back then, "If the policies do not work, why would any government throw money hand over fist at them." Note the lack of a question mark at the end of that sentence. It is an entirely rhetorical statement.

So why is it that the Treasury report, described as a "conversation starter" by a spokesman, has been completely disavowed by its Minister, Bill English? How can this be the same Minister who sees the "moral and fiscal failure" of prisons, and who so emphasises the need for linking expenditure to results in an evidence-based way in other policy areas:

There are increasing signs in education that the system is starting to understand that there should be a link between resource and achievement. We have one of the more expensive compulsory education systems in the OECD yet achievement has, until recently, not moved for about 20 years. So if we’re spending more we should expect more in terms of achievement and if that linkage is not there, then what is it that we’re spending money on? We have indicated our willingness to spend on inputs that will lift achievement - such as the $362 million quality teaching package announced at the beginning of the year – which is a fairly big commitment to evidence-based policy.

Because note that this heralded $362 million - this "fairly big commitment to evidence-based policy" - is less than the amount the Treasury report said we spend on enforcing a prohibition on possessing marijuana which quite obviously is not working. So why on earth would any sane Government keep on throwing large chunks of money at it?

Over at the Dimpost, Danyl Mclauchlan suggests the policy inertia is because "[a]ny politician or government signing off on any kind of cannabis reform dooms themselves to be depicted as stoned pot-smoking hippies in every political cartoonist, pontificating talk-back host and lazy political editors’ sights yea unto the end of days." If that analysis is true - and I do urge you to note the source, so treat with all due skeptical care - then this is where we are left.

We're spending millions and millions to drag 40-something sick people, 70-something social smokers and many, many more besides through our courts and punishing them as criminals (after spending countless police hours raiding their homes and processing their arrests) for no good reason whatsoever, but we can't stop doing so because (most of) our MPs (with a few honourable exceptions) are scared of being ridiculed for doing the sensible thing.

Comments (25)

by Peter Grant on July 25, 2016
Peter Grant

Reminds me of the homosexual repeal bill

by Andrew Geddis on July 25, 2016
Andrew Geddis

Reminds me of the homosexual repeal bill

I'm guessing you mean the New Zealand Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986, rather than a bill to repeal homosexuals! But yes - as I was writing this, that precedent did occur to me.

by Peter Grant on July 25, 2016
Peter Grant

Yes, badly phrased by me , Thank you.

by Alfie West on July 25, 2016
Alfie West

And who would benefit least from a relaxation of our current, misguided cannabis laws? The alcohol industry -- that good friend of and donor to the National Party.

Just sayin.

by Ross Bell on July 25, 2016
Ross Bell

Andrew, I need you to establish some nationwide group of 'lawyers for drug law reform' - part of the law society maybe?? - thanks :)

by Andrew Geddis on July 25, 2016
Andrew Geddis

@Ross,

Oh, great - you want me to be "depicted as a stoned pot-smoking hippy in every political cartoonist, pontificating talk-back host and lazy political editors’ sights yea unto the end of days"? Don't you know I have an important and serious public reputation to uphold?

Seriously, but - such a group wouldn't be a bad idea. Unfortunately, I'm not a member of the law society (never got my practicing certificate) ... but for those "real lawyers" out there who are reading these comments, contact me and we should do something.

by Ross Bell on July 26, 2016
Ross Bell

Andrew, my boss is talking to yor boss about this idea too.

Here's my boss at the UN:https://youtu.be/CFRLPyynnCc

I think my boss also knows Jacinta.

by Simon Connell on July 26, 2016
Simon Connell

@Andrew

I think you've missed part of the context here: the Government's goal of making New Zealand smoke-free by 2025. An additional reason for policy inertia in this area is the fear of undermining  (or being perceived to undermine) that goal by liberalising cannabis laws, thereby allowing harm caused by smoking cannabis to continue. Especially since the Tobacco policy has been championed by one of the Government's support parties.

I'm not say that that's a good or sufficient reason for doing nothing, but I'm pretty sure it's part of the context. While Treasury might have dollar signs in their eyes when thinking about the revenue from taxing cannabis, for others the tax on tobacco is a means to the end of reducing consumption, with the hoped-for endgame of reducing consumption to zero.

by Andrew Geddis on July 26, 2016
Andrew Geddis

Andrew, my boss is talking to yor boss about this idea too.

 This.
by Andrew Geddis on July 26, 2016
Andrew Geddis

@Simon,

That may be so. However, there are many ways of partaking of cannabis and gaining the enjoyable effects that do not rely upon inhaling smoke. Also, if the concern is the public health consequences of inhaling cannabis smoke, then let's treat it as a public health issue ... which doesn't involve searching the houses of sick people and 70-something-year-olds and then putting them on trial.

by Simon Connell on July 26, 2016
Simon Connell

let's treat it as a public health issue ... which doesn't involve searching the houses of sick people and 70-something-year-olds and then putting them on trial

Indeed. Some interesting discussion of the "tobacco endgame" of a ban without criminalisation here

by Roger Brooking on July 26, 2016
Roger Brooking

Andrew & Ross, while you're at it, we need to establish a nationwide group of 'health professionals (especially addiction specialists  & AOD counsellors) for drug law reform'.

by Tracy Livingston on July 26, 2016
Tracy Livingston

If every New Zealander read "the candy machine: how cocaine took over the world" we would decriminalize all recreational drugs henceforth!  it shows how little we know about the level of crime involved & the negative effects of crime rings running drugs in so many countries.  I can highly recommend it.  But ultimately, its simple, making these things illegal just doesn't work - for any body - except the crime rings, and even they can't be happy surely?  I am a health professional and I believe that there are better ways of getting people off self-prescribed medication, but I also believe that medically prescribed drugs are causing enormous damage to our society, but because its legal we don't notice and don't feel the need to change anything.  There will always be a black market in recreational medication because once the Govt starts adding tax, people will start making/growing their own. 

 

by Antoine on July 28, 2016
Antoine

@AG

I see that you would like to enable the use of medical marijuana, which seems like a good thing to do.

To be clear, are you also advocating the decriminalisation of recreational marijuana? If so, how do you answer the contention that it is likely to lead to increased use and hence worse health outcomes (especially among younger people)?

A.

by Andrew Geddis on July 28, 2016
Andrew Geddis

To be clear, are you also advocating the decriminalisation of recreational marijuana? If so, how do you answer the contention that it is likely to lead to increased use and hence worse health outcomes (especially among younger people)?

Yes, I am. I guess I'd make three response to the "won't someone please think of the children!" claim.

First, I'm not convinced that making possession of marijuana illegal actually does significantly suppress its use in practice. It could just as well be that the "forbidden fruits" aspect to the drug actually attracts younger people to it. In any case, the early evidence from Colorado post-legalisation doesn't bear out concerns about increased teen use.

Second, any "health benefits" that are gained from keeping marijuana illegal comes at the cost of imposing criminal convictions on a not-inconsiderable number of young people, with detrimental life consequences for them. So it simply isn't clear what would be "better" for young people as a whole.

Finally, if our concern really is "health outcomes", then let's treat this as a public health problem. After all, teenagers having sex has lead to very high rates of chlamydia in NZ girls. But I don't think anyone takes this to mean we should criminalise all sexual activity outside of marriage in order to "fix" the problem. Rather, we recognise that consenting people can do as they will, while seeking to educate teenagers about the risks and harms of unsafe sex.

by Antoine on July 28, 2016
Antoine

OK, thanks for clarifying.

A narrow focus on medical marijuana would be more likely to be successful yes? Recreational is harder to sell to the politicians?

A.

by Andrew Geddis on July 28, 2016
Andrew Geddis

@Antoine,

You may very well be right about that. And I think the moral case for permitting medical marijuana is stronger than for decriminalising/legalising recreational possession, so if it really is a case of "this is all that is politically achievable" then so be it. But I guess I write these posts not so much from the position of "what can be done in this world (or, at least, to our laws)?" and more "what do I think about the current state of the world (or, at least, our laws)?".

Or, to put it another way, if my writings were constrained by what politicians are prepared to buy, then it'd be hard to come up with much of interest to say!

by Antoine on July 28, 2016
Antoine

You kind of seem to be moving from musings to action, when you say 'for those "real lawyers" out there who are reading these comments, contact me and we should do something'.

If you do go down that line of action, I think you (collectively) need to decide pretty early where you are headed. Otherwise any progress on medical marijuana is likely to be derailed by 'slippery slope' arguments on recreational.

A.

by Andrew Geddis on July 28, 2016
Andrew Geddis

@Antoine,

Sure, if by "action" you mean "put my name behind something others might do"!

But I do think it is possible to argue "permitting the use of marijuana for medical/pain relief purposes is very desirable. It also is desirable (although less so than for medical/pain relief purposes) to allow the use of marijuana for recreational purposes. But one does not necessarily have to imply the other."

I guess you'd counter by saying that this "muddies the message" and that it'll just scare off politicians who see the former as a stalking horse for the latter, so that nothing changes at all. Yeah - maybe ... it's the old issue in politics that the perfect should never be the enemy of the good. But truth be told, I don't really know what politicians are thinking on this matter and so whether they would react in this way. So I'll just keep arguing for what I think is right (while letting others argue for what they think is right) and let the chips fall where they may.

by Antoine on July 28, 2016
Antoine

Well I wish you (collectively) good fortune in your endeavours.

by Roger Brooking on July 28, 2016
Roger Brooking

@Antoine wrote: How do you answer the contention that it is likely to lead to increased use and hence worse health outcomes (especially among younger people)?

Such a contention is nothing more than that - a vague idea with no basis in reality. This has not been a problem in any country where cannabis and ALL OTHER drugs have also been decriminalised - Portugal being the only example of this.

What happened in Portugal is not a vague contention - it is proof that decriminalising drugs is an effective, evidence based strategy for reducing drug related harm.

by Antoine on July 29, 2016
Antoine

Portugal might be a good end game but I can't see NZ getting there any time soon.

A.

by Roger Brooking on July 29, 2016
Roger Brooking

Neither can I. Our politicians are way too gutless.

 

 

by Roger Brooking on August 01, 2016
Roger Brooking
Govt urged to allow legal P use for drug rehabilitation

It's time to decriminalise all drugs and treat addiction as a public health issue, instead of as a crime.

by Dennis Frank on August 07, 2016
Dennis Frank

 I appreciate your stance, Andrew.  The status quo has been preserved thus far by urban liberal mainstreamers as much as by their political representatives.  If such folk are switching from being part of the problem to part of the solution then sanity is likely to eventually prevail.  That group is the most significant political player in the arena other than conservatives.

That group swung it for feminism in the '70s, gays in the '80s, Maori in the '90s. Since those who have chosen to use cannabis are a larger social group than the other three, it is instructive to contemplate the reasons why they are still legally oppressed - whereas the other three have escaped to freedom.

The primary reason is inability to form a political lobby and thus exercise their right of free speech collectively.  NORML has never been anything other than a liberal joke (which is why counter-culture folk ignored it).  As if appealing to the ethics of mainstreamers was ever going to work!  That presuming they have any - a banal flawed assumption.  Mainstreamers preach the inclusion of minorities when it becomes politically-correct to do so:  they would only insist of the inclusion of the largest minority if they were authentic believers in minority rights.

Plenty of rich & famous people in all walks of life have led successful lives while getting high frequently for more than four decades now, in all western countries.  If these folk were able to provide their testimony via the media & other public forums, establishment propaganda would be revealed as bullshit to everyone.  As long as the legal coercion is used to prevent them testifying, sanity cannot prevail.  The only way to overthrow the hegemony of the political left operating in collusion with the political right is for ethical conduct to become contagious.  

If that happens, our traditional culture of moral corruption will die.  I sense an ambience of inevitability around this.  The youngest mature generation seems to be adopting ethical conduct as their standard.  The spinelessness and cynicism of mainstreamers will be seen as contemptible.  Aotearoa will be transformed.

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