In New Zealand, we have a Prime Minister who has been a supporter of cannabis law reform since 1995. We have a minority government made up of political parties that went into the election promising to review the law. That coalition government is supported by the Green Party, whose policy is to allow personal use, possession and cultivation.
Many people are thinking that the struggle is over, the battle has been won, and that ganja is now free. That is not the case. There is much to do still, but things are looking good.
No instant fines
Fears that the issue would be dropped as soon as the election was over have proved false. There has been an on-going media feeding frenzy around the fact that I have openly admitted using cannabis as a part of my RasTafarian faith, and have said that I will continue to do so as a Green MP.
As expected, the usual suspects have tried to fill the papers with the usual bullshit about how cannabis is the worst thing in the world, and that allowing adults to smoke herbs will turn schoolchildren into junkies. There have even been drug “educationalists” saying that they would rather see young people use heroin than cannabis!
Of course truth and common sense will prove the stronger in the end, but we are in a crucial moment. There is a danger that the government will lose its nerve and back away from ending the war on pot.
The other big danger is what kind of reform we will have. While Prime Minister Helen Clarke has said she supports cannabis law reform, what she means is something along the lines of the “instant fines” expiation notice scheme they have in South Australia. The police favour this scheme too, as does the Minister of Health and a number of others.
The problem with instant fines is that more people get busted, because it is so easy to hand out a ticket. Of course it is the same people getting busted as now ? mostly young, mostly brown (Maori or Pacific Island) and mostly poor. Those people can’t afford to pay the fine so end up with a record or doing time anyway for unpaid fines.
What we need is the best policy, not the most convenient one.
Forming the review
As of June, the struggle in parliament is over what form the promised review will take.
The Minister of Health has said that the review should be a select committeee review, and should be done by the Health Select Committee. The Greens disagree, we would prefer that the Justice Select Committee hold the review. The health issues have already been canvassed by the Health Select Committee and by the Ministry of Health in their “cannabis and health” report. What we need to discuss is the legal status of the herb, but realise we cannot win that one. However, we do expect to have input into the terms of reference, and on how the inquiry is set up.
The review is likely to take around six months. But by the time a new law is drafted and it finally goes to a vote it will be getting close to the next election. In the end it will likely be a conscience vote that decides it: MPs will vote individually rather than along party lines.
The Greens will be pushing for a policy that allows adults to grow use and possess herb without penalty. That, I reason, is our God given right.
The Last Review
The last federal review of the law, the Blake Palmer report, was in 1973. That review formed the basis for the current Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, and stated that prohibition should only continue as long as it could be shown to be working. It suggested a review after ten years.
In 1998 the Health Select Committee held an inquiry into the mental health effects of cannabis. Their report stated that:
? the negative mental health impact of cannabis appears to have been overstated, particularly in relation to occasional adult users.
? occasional cannabis use presents few risks to the mental health of most adult users.
? community based drug intervention and education programmes have the greatest potential to bring about sustainable change, and [we]commend this approach to government.
? the double standard which sometimes surrounds the cannabis issue [is]an impediment to effective anti-drug education.
The report concludes: “In light of the evidence we have heard on the effects of cannabis and the high rate of cannabis use in New Zealand, the effectiveness of the current policy on cannabis requires examination.”
That is the basis for the federal review being planned right now.
? Nandor Tanczos: c/o Parliament, Wellington, New Zealand; tel 0064-4-470-6716; fax 0064-4-472-7116; email
[email protected]; website www.greens.org.nz
? NORML New Zealand: website www.norml.org.nz/norml/
? Aorteoa Legalize Cannabis Cannabis Party (NZ): website www.alcp.org.nz/
? The Drug Policy Forum Trust Report; ‘New Zealand Should Regulate and Tax Cannabis Commerce’; 30 March 1998: www.nzdf.org.nz/1998.htm