NORML Conference 15 September, 2001
Trades Hall, Wellington
The politics of cannabis law reform activism
When you've experienced the constraints of public life, with all the hypocrisy that tends to go with it, and then allow
yourself the freedom to take a public stand in support of cannabis law reform ... It's a bit like standing on the
southern coast of Wellington and feeling the full force of a southerly gale straight off icy Antarctica.
There's something refreshing and invigorating about it - but at the same time, if you're not prepared for it, the full
force of public condemnation will whip right through you and you'll wonder whether you made the right choice standing
there in that particular place. I believe I have. The south coast is one of the best parts of Wellington - the safest
city to smoke a joint. Welcome to Wellington!
I think making these kinds of choices are essential given the crisis of confidence in the democratic ideal . the ideal
to which 'civilised' nations subscribe. We've heard much about that ideal in recent days. But in the normal course of
events it's a crisis reflected in low voter turn out - especially in countries like the US - and particularly amongst
younger people and others who are disenfranchised or marginalised. There are many in the cannabis community for whom
this is a reality.
While thousands of people continue to suffer the harm associated with prohibition, and in some cases cannabis itself,
our elected representatives fail to act. Instead of taking decisions with the potential to reduce harm and create a
safer society, MPs are captured by concern about their own political futures. So far, most have failed to recognise the
enormous support that could be generated if real leadership were demonstrated and the right kind of cannabis policies
phased in over time. That is starting to change. There is a growing realisation that voters want change.
But the message from some MPs is that the politics of law reform are just too hard. If they support law reform, how will
they convince their voters that they haven't gone soft and sold out? These MPs are asking themselves the wrong question.
Instead of doing what is right, it seems easier for them to maintain the status quo, despite its enormous failings. It
is precisely this kind of situation that perpetuates the crisis of confidence in democracy and causes people to turn
their backs on democratic process. Radical action has its place.
Watching the debate unfold over the past few years it is clear that sometimes a headline-grabbing action like the big
cannabis smoke-out on the grounds of parliament in 1996 is a necessary step. The day that protest took place someone
with a loud hailer - probably someone here today - made the point that there were cannabis smokers in parliament
buildings who would understand what the protesters were saying and would be secretly supporting the message, even if
they couldn't do so publicly. I was one. Let me say thanks to those of you have been prepared to get out there and
actively agitate in the past few years. The debate has moved on substantially because of the time and resources you've
Unfortunately though, the legal status of cannabis and the experience of social sanction still forces some people to
keep a safe distance from the real activist action, observing from the margins. At times it seems like the risks
associated with taking a public and honest stand are too much.
As all of us know, the politics of cannabis law reform see many reformers slammed in news media editorials and columns,
while those same newspapers carry full page feature articles exploring the pleasures of alcoholic cocktails and where
you can go to buy them. The main drug of choice has all of its attendant health benefits extolled, as readers are
encouraged to savour their nightly glass of wine. The hypocrisy is outrageous and young people see it.
As well as blatantly reminding us of the double standards at every turn, the critics like to make it seem that
supporting policy change that is supposedly unpopular in mainstream political and media circles, is dangerous territory.
But we are not the first, and we will not be the last ones, to sustain attacks from the news media and politicians
simply because we have dared to utter the truth.
I do it because cannabis uses all over the country are forced to maintain a veil of silence and secrecy. They are forced
to live in a climate of dishonesty that creates enormous social and also familial dislocation. Recent government figures
reveal a ten fold increase in the number of Maori convicted for dealing cannabis over twenty years - their involvement
in this economy is sometimes borne out of necessity. We have to work hard to resolve this - more arrests are not the
answer. Incredibly, police spent 298,000 hours on cannabis related matters in 1999/2000 at an average charge out rate of
$56 an hour.
It's hardly surprising then the number of people prepared to privately state their support for significant law change.
The fact is, however, those same people remain fearful of ever having to declare their hand. Many are in influential
positions. Many also choose, on occasion, to use cannabis. They support the government's inquiry into effective public
health and health promotion strategies and their connection to the legal status of cannabis but are constrained to say
so. They conceal their own actions and they've lost their freedom of speech.
In contrast, the freedom and liberation that comes with public honesty is enormous. It's a freedom I hope will come to
other cannabis users all over New Zealand - the ability to speak honestly and openly with their own family, friends,
employers, and medical practitioners instead of hiding the truth. Only then will the harms associated with cannabis be
reduced. This is what we are fighting for. This is what law reform can deliver. And this is why NORML, the ALCP and
others must continue to advocate change.
To achieve political change our MPs must appreciate that there is a politically acceptable way forward. The challenge
facing all of us here today is to ensure that MPs and the public alike recognise that cannabis law reform is a necessary
step toward creating a safer society. There is already an understanding that prohibition is failing to protect people.
The next step is to develop public agreement that there is a way forward capable of building on the common ground that
currently exists on both sides of the debate.
We need a phased introduction of consistent law and policy, designed to keep young people safe and control the
availability of cannabis. The law must also be supported by a significant improvement in drug education and treatment,
including the development of indigenous, evidence-based programmes. This requires political will and adequate
investment. It is the only way to turn things around.
In the meantime, the arrogance of news media that feel free to attack law reformers while propping up booze merchants
should not deter us. We're on the right side of history and Members of Parliament that support law reform will be too.
It is going to happen.
Contact Deborah on (025) 544-299