Jim Anderton - Reform of marijuana laws

Published: Sun 25 Jun 2000 09:22 PM
Hon Jim Anderton
25 June 2000 Speech Notes
Sunday, 25 June 2000
Reform of marijuana laws
Address at the opening of Alcohol & Drug Treatment Works Week,
First Floor, Christchurch Convention Centre, Kilmore St, Christchurch.
We can either keep the marijuana laws as they are and enforce them properly.
Or the police and the courts can get on with something else and leave the health system to clean up the human catastrophe.
That was the message from a senior police officer on television recently.
It's a timely reminder of the choice we face over drugs and this country's drug laws.
I was in a small New Zealand town recently.
I spoke to a class of sixth formers.
When I asked them who supported legalising marijuana, not one hand went up.
Community leaders and educationalists told me that marijuana is the Number one challenge they face.
Quite soon, the Government will consider whether to review cannabis laws.
It will be a conscience issue, for most parties at least.
It is a matter of personal conviction, not party politics.
Of course, cannabis smokers will want the law liberalised.
I get representations all the time.
They are sincere and persuasive.
But their self-interest needs to be balanced against the overall costs and benefits to society.
After all, a young person may not care about superannuation but society needs to provide for the elderly; A millionaire may not want income related rents, but society needs to provide for the homeless; A childless person may oppose paid parental leave, but we need to provide for families.
I won't be voting to make marijuana more freely available.
Parliamentarians need to listen to school principals in despair over the effects of marijuana on kids in school.
One wrote recently, "I have had to witness for years now the physical, psychological, emotional and social effects that drug use has on teenagers and their families. It is soul-destroying to watch young people with huge potential change into unmotivated, unkempt, disruptive individuals."
Remember that the school principals who are campaigning against cannabis are the same ones who are usually being berated by conservatives for the things they teach our young.
Actually, school principals have one priority in mind – the welfare of young New Zealanders.
One of the problems with debate about marijuana laws is the level of hysteria.
Anyone who doubts the health advantages of legalising cannabis gets accused of running a 'reefer madness' campaign.
But a Christchurch study published earlier this month showed 70 per cent of people have used cannabis by age 21.
Another one published this weekend shows that 30% of kids have tried marijuana before they turn 17.
Clearly some people can use it with no significant ill effects.
That isn't the point.
Most people who drive a car never need a seat belt.
We enforce seat-belt laws to save the lives of those who do need them.
My priority in this debate is to make sure we do not worsen the problems already caused by drug abuse.
Parliament will need to consider how to prevent drug abuse while we currently allow drugs like alcohol and tobacco to be sold.
Young people are highly unimpressed that an addictive, deadly poison like tobacco can be sold legally, but they can carry a conviction for life if they're caught with a joint.
To be fair, that was the biggest concern of the sixth formers I spoke to recently.
They didn't think it was fair for someone to carry the stigma of a conviction for their whole lives just for being caught with a single marijuana cigarette.
They have a good point.
My concern is the health problems of the drug.
If a third of kids are trying it before they turn 17, then we're making a mistake by making criminals out of them all.
But I believe we're making a mistake by giving any signal that marijuana is OK or by making it more available.
In Timaru the local paper recently reported school kids saying that cannabis is easier and cheaper to buy than alcohol.
Four people could get "wasted" with a $20 tinnie, whereas it cost almost double that for the same effect with alcohol.
So the current approach is not working.
But making cannabis even more freely available won't make it better either.
The community already pays a great deal for the human and health costs of tobacco and alcohol abuse.
It seems irresponsible and expensive to add another drug to the list.
Current research suggests that the underlying factors such as poverty and lack of job opportunities are strong contributing factors to crime and abuse of drugs.
It also shows that if someone is vulnerable to a psychotic illness, then cannabis will make him or her much more vulnerable.
In other words, cannabis pushes them over the edge.
Just as worrying are the hidden dangers to the reproductive systems of users.
The Substance Abuse Education Trust says long-term cannabis use damages men's sperm and interrupts women's ovulation cycles, which could affect the reproductive organs of their offspring.
I wonder how popular cannabis would be among young men and women if some of the people advocating it talked about that a little more.
It is an urgent responsibility of the Government of New Zealand to help to fund the same kind of public education campaign against drug use and abuse that it has conducted against drink-driving.
It is my privilege to officially launch the inaugural Treatment Works Week and wish it great success.
New Zealand certainly needs it to succeed.

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