Gordon Campbell: On Stoking Fears About Cannabis Law ReformPosted by On

First
published on Werewolf

It was always
going to be hard to have a rational debate on cannabis
reform. Far easier for politicians to win votes by stoking
alarm. With National and New Zealand First already competing
for the “who’s the toughest sheriff in town” badge at
Election 2020, their law’n’order posturing is going to
make it extremely hard to discuss how the harms and
injustices being perpetuated by the current system can best
be addressed.

The reality is that the current policy of
absolute prohibition has failed. In one part of our brains
we know this. Every day, many, many New Zealanders use
cannabis on a regular basis. (Plainly, the availability of
cannabis under prohibition is not a major hurdle.) Yet many
people continue to be criminalised by a cannabis law that
hundreds of thousands of other people successfully flout
every week.

Prohibition has also created a black market
in cannabis supply that breeds criminal
activity and violence. As a consequence, the resources of
the Police and the Corrections system are being wasted on
punishing “crimes” associated with the recreational use
of cannabis. Elsewhere in the world, an increasing number of
developed countries (e.g. Canada, Portugal) and US states (e.g. California, Colorado) have embraced the option of regulating
and taxing cannabis use, and putting the proceeds back into
education, treatment and other forms of harm reduction.

Cannabis reform is always going to be an imperfect
process. (The status quo is far more flawed.) Yet only
hours after Justice Minister Andrew Little unveiled the
outlines of the cannabis law that voters will be considering
at next year’s referendum, National MP Paula Bennett was
already hitting the alarm buttons : what about the proposed
amount allowed for recreational use, what about young people
driving while stoned or being stoned at work, what about the
tax level on cannabis. If you’re in the business of
stoking alarm, the answers will not stop the skittering on
to the next panicky symptom of reefer madness.

In fact,
the details contained in the proposed law announced
yesterday provide a useful initial platform for the debate.
New Zealanders would be allowed to grow two plants each, or
four per household, and buy up to 14 grams of dried cannabis
a day, which is an estimate of the weekly use by a moderate
user. Advertising of cannabis would be prohibited. Those
licensed to engage in commercial production would first have
to pass a character test, although prior convictions for
cannabis use would not necessarily be a disqualifier. (A
history of other forms of criminal activity almost certainly
would be, though.) Moreover:

Cannabis-infused
“edibles” would also be allowed, but only with a regulator’s
official sign-off, meaning contentious products, like gummy
bears, could almost certainly be ruled out. The draft bill
also 
confirmed
other
conditions announced
by Mr Little in May, including a minimum purchase age of 20
and a ban on smoking in public.

To date, National’s
objections to the draft bill have mainly been about the lack
of fine detail on the THC levels, the tax levels, and the
driving/health & safety implications of legalisation. As
many observers have already pointed out about those health
and safety fears, significant regulations already exist with
respect to workplace drug testing and driving while impaired
by alcohol – and the regulations are especially stringent
with respect to occupations to do with public safety.

Some of the objections raised to date seem specious. In
particular, the fear that a 14 gram limit could
(theoretically) all be smoked in one day defies logic. As
RNZ’s Checkpoint has already pointed out, people do not
drink dry their entire liquor cabinet every day, or shoot
off their entire stock of ammunition the moment they get it.
The point of the 14 gram limit is establish a workable
barrier between an amount fit for moderate personal use, and
an amount that would qualify as commercial use. You can bet
that if the 14 gram allowance level was reduced, the fears
would then shift to people pooling their stashes. For those
inclined, yielding to fears of reefer madness will always be
an option.

As yet, the debate has not engaged with the
likely impact of legalisation upon New Zealand’s current
criminal black market for cannabis, in which gangs are
heavily involved. Two weeks ago, National
announced a zero tolerance policy towards gangs
.

Yet
as National leader Simon Bridges told RNZ this morning he
opposes cannabis legalisation. These two stances seem to be
utterly contradictory. Bridges says he wants to crack down
hard on gangs, yet he is opposing what is arguably the most
effective way of undermining their economic base.

Also…
while the debate has largely assumed that cannabis reform
would merely add to the problems we already have with
alcohol – especially among the young – the potential
gains to society from any shift towards a less damaging
recreational drug of choice have yet to be raised. Cannabis
is not without harm, but if young people chose cannabis
instead of alcohol, demonstrably less harm to them and to
others, would result.

Par for the course from Bridges and
Bennett. It is all about the posturing. Unfortunately, we
seem destined to see and hear a lot more in the way of
reefer madness posturing as we get closer to the cannabis
referendum.

Under fire, from Russians

New Zealanders are famously sensitive about
being criticised by foreigners. This national foible was on
display again yesterday, in the political responses to
comments about our soldiers in Afghanistan made by an
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson called Maria
Zakharova. Here’s the
gist of what she said
:

In a media briefing late
last month, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria
Zakharova said 
New
Zealand must investigate crimes
 against
civilians. While she said the facts still needed to be
verified, she referred to the 
death
of seven children
 in 2014 as a result of the
“New Zealand military’s negligence when they failed to
properly clear the grounds they no longer used from mines.
It seems that the lack of regard for the local population
has created a favourable environment for these
crimes.

Fair cop. If we’d truly cared about them,
we’d have done more to protect their safety. The reasons
are likely to be the same ones she mentioned:

“It
looked like those same people the international forces were
stationed there to help, to restore stability, security and
defeat terrorism, were treated as some second-class people
whose lives can be sacrificed in the name of selfish
political or other interests,” Ms Zakharova
continued.

Bizarrely, the argument yesterday between
Foreign Minister Winston Peters and National MP and former
Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee was not over the substance
of Zhakharova’s comments but whether (a) the comment
barely merited a response (the Peters position) or (b)
whether it was an unpardonable slur on the integrity of the
NZ Defence Forces, as Brownlee insisted it to be. Keep in
mind that the firing range clean-up and the deadly proof of
its inadequacy both happened on Brownlee’s watch. Is he
ashamed ? Hell no. The firing range, Brownlee maintained,
was “cleared to the acceptable standard of the time”.

Hmmm. Quite a few things we rightly denounce today were
considered “acceptable” at the time. It doesn’t
justify them. After all, this isn’t ancient history. The
Kiwi troops moved out only six years ago, and the children
died barely a year later. The overwhelming evidence is that
the “ clean-up” was inadequate, and Afghan families have
suffered the consequences, without so much as a hint of
apology or compensation from…

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