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Towards a realistic drug policy

by Stephen McIntyr

The hundreds of alcohol-related arrests this New Year – despite liquor bans and the deployment of additional police – are a reminder of how big a role alcohol plays in incidents of social disorder, violence, injury and premature death; not just over the festive season, but all year round.

The pragmatic way to reduce alcohol-related harms is through reducing consumption; this can be done by legally permitting adults the option of using a demonstratively safer drug – like cannabis – instead. Here’s what latest evidence has to say about the health effects of New Zealand’s two most popular recreational drugs.

One thousand deaths in New Zealand are directly attributable to alcohol each year; half from injury, a quarter from cancers (NZ Law Commission, 2009). Alcohol affects brain centers regulating respiratory and cardiac functions; excessive consumption potentially resulting in the loss of consciousness, loss of breathing and death (WHO).

Consume too much pot on the other hand and you’ll most likely fall asleep. Cannabis activates receptors located in the brain’s frontal lobe, not the brain stem, so unlike alcohol, it is incapable of producing a fatal overdose, regardless of amount consumed (WHO).

Alcohol’s toxicity means even moderate use is known to affect brain development (Stevenson, 2009), and can lead to organ damage and cancer (National Health & Medical Research Council). In 1997, alcohol-related conditions alone killed 142 New Zealanders. From 1990-96, seven deaths were associated with a cannabis-related condition (Ministry of Health), however to date no study has identified any way in which cannabis use alone hastens death. In 2006, the results of the largest case-controlled study ever to investigate the respiratory effects of pot smoking reported that it was not associated with lung-related cancers, even among heavy users (Washington Post).

Alcohol intoxication can lead to risk-taking, injury, violence, and accidental death. In NZ, over 20,000 people report incurring injuries due to their own drinking in the previous year (Alcohol & Drug Use Survey, 2000). Alcohol is involved in one fifth of drownings (MoH), and is responsible for over 500 serious and fatal road crashes annually (NZ Police).

Statistically, cannabis use has no correlation with increased likelihood of injury; in fact a recent study found cannabis use associated “with a substantially decreased risk of injury (University of Missouri, 2006). An earlier British Governmental study concluded that “Marijuana intoxication plays a relatively insignificant role in vehicular accidents” (Department of Environment, Transport & Regions, 2001); a finding supported by Canadian data showing that cannabis-smoking drivers compensate by being “more cautious” (Center for Addiction & Mental Health, 1999).

Alcohol factors significantly in violent crime statistics: one third of all offences and half of all serious violent offences in NZ are committed by offenders who have been drinking (NZ Police); alcohol is associated with 46 percent of incidents of sexual violence (National Survey of Crime Victims, 2001). By contrast, nothing in the NZ Drug Statistics indicates cannabis use a cause of violent crime. Any association between cannabis and violence is linked to the black market and is therefore a direct result of prohibition itself.

There are now more than 17,000 published studies and papers analyzing cannabis; it has been described by a US Drug Enforcement Administration Judge as “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man”. Of course, inhaling smoke isn’t harmless, but virtually every government study conducted concludes that cannabis poses significantly less burden to public health than most legal drugs. A Canadian study calculated the annual health-related cost for cannabis at only 20 dollars per user – one eighth the cost for alcohol and one fortieth that for tobacco (Thomas, 2009).

Surveys however find that non-users in particular overestimate the drug’s real harms. Misconceptions about the alleged risks of cannabis are the primary obstacle to ending its prohibition and correcting significant social problems caused by alcohol.

Legalising cannabis through a regulated market similar to alcohol won’t add another vice, but will instead lighten the general burden to health by providing a safer, legal alternative. An expected modest rise in overall rates of cannabis use will be offset many times over by the immediate and long-term health benefits of corresponding declines in adult tobacco and alcohol consumption and cannabis use by minors.

Rates of cannabis use by young people shrink in places where laws are loosened. In the Netherlands, where cannabis has been sold to adults in coffee shops for thirty years, the figure for teens under 16 having tried pot is seven percent, in New Zealand, it’s four times that (WHO). A 2005 survey found that U.S. states with medical marijuana laws all saw a decline in cannabis use among teenagers (Ukiah Daily Journal).

By changing the cannabis laws, we permit people to make more responsible choices before getting intoxicated. With cannabis legally available to adults, a first-year university student can eat too many pot cookies and wind up fast asleep on her friend’s couch, rather than comatose in a hospital bed from playing drinking games. Elsewhere, an abusive husband will realize that he can contain his temper by switching from beer to cannabis and there’ll be a reduction in the 22,000 incidents of family violence every year where alcohol is identified as a “significant factor” by the Ministry of Justice. Both infinitely better health outcomes from a far more realistic drug policy.

Stephen McIntyre
National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML NZ)

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