Hard News by Russell Brown


Media Take: We need to talk about cannabis

This week's Media Take looks at cannabis and the law from various angles – and it kicks off with something of a surprise.

I've interviewed Māori Party MP Marama Fox on the issue before, for this November 2015 Matters of Substance story, and figured I had a fair idea of where she stood. Back then, she stated up front that she didn't support cannabis decriminalisation.

“I’m not interested in decriminalising marijuana. I’m more interested in a restructure of the law, so it’s still a criminal behaviour, but the response is different. Punitive responses haven’t worked."

She then went on to urge a health-oriented response to the problems she sees in whanau and communities; a response that sounded quite a lot like decriminalisation.

But, as she says in this clip we gave Stuff in advance of the show, Marama and her party have moved, not only on medical cannabis but on decriminalisation. "I'm ready to have that conversation," she says now. She doesn't even rule out legalisation in the long term. And the reason for her personal shift is the way methamphetamine is supplanting cannabis in many regional communities – as her own relatives are discovering.

"They're going to every tinny house and being offered P," she says. "There is no marijuana availability ... they make more money off P than they do off marijuana, they no longer supply marijuana to the town. For that reason, I'm willing to have the conversation."

In truth, it would take legalised and regulated sale – or a form of decriminalisation that permitted small-scale cultivation – to really disconnect cannabis from the ballooning meth trade. And Marama's checklist of cancers caused by cannabis isn't borne out by the evidence. But the traditionally conservative Māori Party has now joined the Green, Act, United Future parties and The Opportunities Party in wanting to talk about reform. A string of polls indicating that the public is of similar mind have yet to move Labour (which does want to broaden access for medical users) and National.

So what is the deal? The National Academies evidence review The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research, published this year, does find "modest evidence that cannabis use is associated with one subtype of testicular cancer", but none indicating that that it is associated with lung or other cancers it looked at. That would make is far less carinogenic than alcohol, let alone tobacco.

The review does find that cannabis use during adolescence is related to impairment in education, employment and social relations. And, in a nauced assessment, that "cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses; the higher the use the greater the risk." Cannabis is very definitely not without its harms. And the fact that Māori use is higher than that for other groups and, crucially, that so many Māori begin using cannabis under the age of 14, makes the issue particularly acute for Māori communities

It is also not without its benefits. The review found "conclusive or substantial evidence" that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective in treating vomiting (ie: as an antiemetic), MS-related spasticity – and chronic pain.

That last, of course, is one of the main reasons that people profess to use cannabis therapeutically. And in theory, the state takes a compassionate view of that particular illegal conduct. Minister Peter Dunne and senior officers have both said that the police will exercise disrcretion in such cases. But, as Nelson lawyer Sue Grey says in this week's show, that's really not what's happening. Very vulnerable people are being subjected to searches and prosecutions.

The two AOD treatment professionals on the show, Donna Blair and Suzy Marrison, were, respectively, less and more keen on law reform. Donna's qualms were largely around resourcing – even if reform did make people with problems more likely to seek help, where was the funding? Norml president Chris Fowlie noted that a share of the $300m currently spent annually policing cannabis (and inflicting legal harm) would help.

There's another reason we need to be talking about this more seriously. And that's that cannabis is everywhere. It's in the culture in a way it has not been before. A couple of weeks ago, the Viceland channel on Sky had "Weed Week", which was chock-full of the kind of content that used to (and still could) get magazines banned by the Chief Censor. Saying the same old thing to young people really isn't going to work.

Anyway, there's much more in the programme and its online-only extra discussion. You can wait until 11.30am Sunday, when both parts are bundled together for an extended screening on Maori Television. Or you can watch on demand. Have a look:

Media Take Series 4 Episode 6

Media Take Series 4 Episode 6 extended discussion

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