27 September 2011

Pros and cons of decriminalising marijuana an important debate

The call by ACT leader Don Brash for New Zealand to consider decriminalising marijuana has had the desired effect of creating headlines, as well as discussion.

New Zealanders are among the heaviest users in the world — about three times as many per capita smoke cannabis as in the Netherlands, where drug policies were liberalised in 1976. Coupled with our hugely damaging culture of binge-drinking, something clearly is not right in Godzone.

Dr Brash should not have said marijuana is safe — it can trigger psychosis and saps the energy and ambitions of far too many people — but he is right to say there are strong arguments in favour of decriminalisation.

Its illegality creates a lucrative business for criminals. High taxation of the proceeds of selling marijuana would allow society to invest heavily in public education, keeping children and teenagers off drugs, and in better treatment facilities for addicts.

National Addiction Centre director Professor Doug Sellman, who has led criticism of the Government’s weak response to calls for comprehensive alcohol reforms, welcomes the debate.

While “no psychoactive recreational drug is completely safe”, Prof Sellman says cannabis is of low-to-moderate risk while alcohol has been demonstrated to be a Class B-equivalent drug — ie a high risk to public health.

The recent Law Commission Review of the Misuse of Drugs Act encourages public discussion about drugs from a health perspective rather than just as a criminal justice and moral issue.

Prof Sellman lists four main risks associated with frequent, heavy cannabis use: chronic respiratory illness; injury and death from driving under the influence (less risky than drink-driving); pychotic symptoms (clinically relevant in less than 1 percent of the population); and a negative impact on learning, especially “adolescents who are at that critical stage of life when both formal school education as well as complex social learning set a life course for the individual within society”.

Jeremy Muir
26 September, 2011
The Gisborne Herald

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