Joint effort

by Bill Ralston / 28 October, 2012
Is there a better way to put the brakes on hard drug use, asks Bill Ralston.
Joint effort

Here is a question for you. Which is worst: buy a Big Mac, put $5 on the nose of the favourite in the second leg of the double at Ellerslie, or light up a big joint? Actually, according to a recent official British study, smoking dope is only “moderately risky” behaviour, posing the same hazard to your well-being as gambling or junk food. Around half a million New Zealanders seem to agree, if the most recent study here is right, because 17% of the population admitted using recreational drugs within the past year. About 50% of us have got stoned out of our brains at some stage in our lives. Those statistics make me think the authorities’ response to drugs over the past 50 years may have been an abject failure and complete waste of money. Law has been layered upon law to ensure we are spared the evils of various kinds of dope. Of course, we can legally smoke lethal fags and drink ourselves into oblivion, but the state is adamant we must not touch the forbidden fruit of recreational drugs.

Of course, no one in their right mind would advocate the use of malign junk such as methamphetamine or heroin. The blight of P has done enormous damage to far too many lives, and the movie Trainspotting, although entertaining, should have convinced anyone not to reach for a hypodermic needle. The problem seems to be that, although we have different classes of drugs, we still lump them together as dangerous substances to be banned, effectively equating marijuana with P or heroin, albeit giving it a lower category of harm. Having broken the law and tried marijuana and not dropped dead, gone insane or been arrested, a new user may decide to progress to the harder drugs, figuring that if the warnings about dope were wrong, they may also be just a scare tactic with something more evil like methamphetamine.

Dope-dealers selling cannabis are also likely to stock harder drugs, bringing marijuana smokers into contact with them, because both substances are illegal. The six-year study by the UK Drug Policy Commission, “A Fresh Approach to Drugs”, doesn’t go as far as recommend the legalisation of most drugs, but it does make the point that drug laws and the classification system have “lost credibility” for many people. It sensibly recommends soft treatment of people growing just a few marijuana plants, as the practice of “growing your own” undermines, it says, the organised criminal networks producing large-scale stronger types of cannabis. It could certainly be argued that New Zealand’s drug laws have dramatically boosted the revenues of gangs. By the way, just in case Mr Plod decides this column is an invitation to pop into my place for a nice chat and a quick look around, the only green thing growing in my backyard is parsley. My hippie days are long gone. Honest.

Unfortunately for public debate on the matter, the advocacy for decriminalising marijuana is restricted to the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party and, these days, the privacy of backrooms in the Green Party caucus. The prevailing wisdom is it would be political suicide for any mainstream politician to urge a rethink of our drug laws. Any who do must be stoners themselves, goes the rationale. Yet I can’t help feeling that separating cannabis from the herd of stronger drugs might help put the brakes on hard drug use. At least 14.6% of the population are ignoring the law anyway and happily rolling themselves a big doobie. One in seven people are doing it every day. Going back to the UK study’s findings about “risky behaviours”, if the same state logic were applied to junk food and gambling as it does to marijuana, then pokies and horses would be banned and dealers would be selling backstreet burgers.
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