Hard News by Russell Brown


But seriously, drug policy

Whatever the context of Hone Harawira's salty email and however much it does or doesn't signal a critical split in the Internet Mana alliance, the media noise has drowned out the central fact: another political party has officially adopted an evidence-based policy on cannabis and, moreover, pledged to "work towards comprehensive drug law reform."

It's not insignificant that the policy itself is posted and branded as the work of the Internet Party itself, rather than the alliance -- officially, Internet Mana agrees only on the health dimension of cannabis reform and is still "working on" decriminalisation -- but it's concise and clear and worth a look. Its principal points are summed up thus:

  • Immediately legalise medical use of cannabis and set up a licensing system to regulate and administer the cultivation of natural cannabis for medical use.

  • Immediately decriminalise personal use of cannabis so that possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use will no longer carry a criminal penalty.

  • Develop a model for regulating the legal production and distribution of cannabis for personal use to enable the taxation of cannabis and the monitoring of its supply.

The only serious analysis of the policy I've seen is this blog post by Nandor Tanczos, who approves, concluding:

I think this policy is a brave move. No doubt it will lead to some interesting conversations with Mana. It will be controversial. But it is also astute. The Greens still support law reform, and will be important in getting any legislative change through Parliament, but understandably it is a low priority for them. There is now no one in Parliament proactively speaking up for law reform. Thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of votes are looking for somewhere more promising than the ALCP.

The Green Party does still offer a more cautious, less concise, policy in this area. Apart from an odd section promising to lean on Pharmac to "take a lead role in seeking to reduce the inappropriate prescribing of drugs such as anti-depressants" (let's leave that up to doctors and health researchers), it does undertake to "eliminate penalties for personal cannabis use for people aged 18 years and over" and "define in law the limits on growing cannabis for personal use."

Basically, the Greens would bring regulation of cannabis into line with that of alcohol, in part by tightening the latter. It's big on harm reduction.

And, apart from the aforementioned Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, that's about it for the manifestos. The bold, shining libertarian warriors of Act have nothing to say beyond law-and-order chest-beating. Jamie Whyte was at pains to emphasise on his election as party leader in February that the party would not be exploring that particular dimension of liberty at all. He acknowledged that Act's board, perhaps mindful of the reception of Don Brash's sincere and thoughtful speech on drug reform in 2011, would not tolerate that.

For Labour's part, David Cunliffe ventured support for a harm-reduction and health-based approach, saying he would be "personally comfortable with a summary offence for personal possession" before adding "but that's a matter of conscience."

In a story late last month by Derek Cheng, following up on a Herald-Digipoll poll that found a striking 80% support for either decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis, Peter Dunne said he opposed reform but could envisage, "over time", the development of a regulatory system similar to that for new psychoactive substances. And John Key gave one of his "just because" answers:

"Even though I know lots of people use cannabis, in my view encouraging drug use is a step in the wrong direction for New Zealand."

As ever, the Prime Minister isn't inclined to listen to experts. His then-Justice Minister Simon Power could hardly wait to dismiss the Law Commission's 2010 review of the Misuse of Drugs Act, which recommended a mandatory cautioning scheme to keep cannabis users out of the criminal justice system and found "no reason why cannabis should not be able to be used for medicinal purposes in limited circumstances."

Power's response was that: "There is not a single solitary chance that as long as I'm the Minister of Justice that we'll be relaxing drug laws in New Zealand."

If the minister was not about to risk reading the Commission's report, it was notable that it found a much warmer reception in the editorial columns of both The Dominion Post and the New Zealand Herald.

The mainstream poitical consensus, especially in election year, is not only that there are other priorities (which there clearly are) but that drug reform is wholly separate from those priorities and that it's flat-out impossible to walk and chew gum at the same time. Such are the politics of drug reform.

 It's no accident that it was former, rather than current leaders (including the former presidents of Brazil, Portugal, Switzerland, Chile and Mexico, and establishment figures like George Schultz , Paul Volcker and Kofi Annan) who yesterday called for an end to the War on Drugs on behalf of The Global Commission on Drug Policy. The report to which they have all put their names, Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies That Work, says this:

Putting health and community safety first requires a fundamental reorientation of policy priorities and resources, from failed punitive enforcement to proven health and social interventions.

"The good news," says the report's Executive Summary, "is that change is in the air." It's a long-ish game: the Commission is targeting the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem in 2016. Between now and then there will be a stark alignment of nations, with the Latin American countries on one side and the likes of Russia on the other.

If we can't expect honesty on the issue from most of our political parties during an election campaign, working to ensure that New Zealand does not find itself on the side of the thug nations two years hence seems more than worthwhile.

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