The New Zealand parliament's Health Select Committee is once again holding hearings and accepting submissions on cannabis law reform, and will do so through February 7th. The select committee's review comes more than two years after it first recommended that the legal status of cannabis be revisited. That recommendation came after an 8-month study with 70 submissions by interested parties.
The long delay is at least partly attributable to stiff and vocal opposition to any change in cannabis' prohibited status.
Foes led by opposition National Party head Jenny Shipley, who last month reaffirmed her party's stance against legalized cannabis, have engaged in an all-out and sometimes laughable campaign. In public forums, newspaper op-ed pages and letters to the editor, opponents have blamed cannabis for everything from "zombie schoolchildren" to a trout shortage. (One angry angler complained to the Otago Daily Times that marijuana farmers were stealing the fish to use as fertilizer for their crops. A park ranger, however, explained that the missing fish had merely spawned earlier than usual and gone on their way.)
Opponents have also engineered press scare campaigns around the tiniest bits of research that could conceivably bolster their cause by demonizing marijuana. Headlines such as "Cannabis Link to Fatal Road Crashes Shown," "Dutch Cannabis Use Leads to Heroin," and "Marijuana Has Same Health Risks as Tobacco," while not uncommon in recent months, reach far beyond the research results on which they are putatively based.
But scare tactics notwithstanding, the governing Labour-Alliance coalition is moving ahead with its review. Earlier this week, Justice Minister Phil Goff and Health Minister Annette King visited Australia to confer with officials there on the long-standing South Australian policy of instant fines for minor cannabis offenders. Since 1987, South Australia has fined possessors of small amounts of cannabis between $50 and $150 rather than take them to court.
"I think there is some merit in it," Health Minister King told the Otago Daily Times. "I think that it is worthwhile us getting more information and putting it into the discussion."
More information may be worthwhile, but Youth Minister Laila Harre rejected the fine scheme at a Wellington youth forum on Wednesday. She told supporters that in other countries the fine model resulted in criminal convictions for non-payment down the road.
"The fines may be nothing more than a tax on cannabis users, heavily weighted against those who are most likely to get caught and less likely to be able to pay, such as young people," she told the Otago Daily Times.
Harre instead called for "partial liberalization," which would allow people to legally possess small amounts, but in which growing and large sales would remain illegal.
That doesn't go far enough for Green Party MP Nandor Tanczos, a Maori Rastafarian, who has led the charge for an outright end to cannabis prohibition. In forums across the country over the past two years, Tanczos has steadfastly hewed to his anti-prohibition line and will argue for it before the Health Select Committee.
The committee review will study harm reduction measures for cannabis as well as its legal status. Proposals so far have run the gamut from doing nothing, to continuing prohibition with a medical marijuana exception, to giving police discretion to issue civil citations or refer users to drug treatment.
Former Youth Affairs Minister Deborah Morris, a member of the Coalition for Cannabis Law Reform, adheres to Tanczos' anti-prohibition position. She told the Wellington forum that prohibition was more harmful than moderate cannabis use, and that it created a climate of fear by isolating and victimizing users, especially youth and the Maori minority.
But cannabis users shouldn't be holding their breath just yet. The Otago Daily Times reports that "progress on legislative change is expected to be slow and unlikely to happen until after the next election."
The marijuana issue has been percolating on New Zealand's agenda since at least 1998, when a high-powered group of physicians and professionals under the auspices of the New Zealand Drug Policy Forum Trust issued a report calling for marijuana legalization (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/036.html#nzdpft).