New Zealand's long-awaited parliamentary hearings on new "strategies for cannabis" finally got underway on May 30th, with dreadlocked Rastafarian New Zealand Green Party Member of Parliament Nandor Tanczos leading off with a call for the decriminalization of the use and cultivation of marijuana in personal quantities. And late last week, the New Zealand Medical Association gave its cautious approval to the idea.
In accord with a pre-election Labour government promise to the Greens, who control seven seats in parliament, the multi-party Health Select Committee is hearing submissions from interested individuals and organizations. The committee is expected to hold public hearings through August and report to parliament before year's end. Its recommendation will then be voted on by parliament in a "conscience vote," where normally strict party discipline will not apply.
The inquiry's mandate is: "To inquire into the most effective public health and health promotion strategies to minimise the use of and the harm associated with cannabis and consequently the most appropriate legal status of cannabis."
Its clear subtext is decriminalization. According to a poll last year, 41% of New Zealanders favored decriminalization of marijuana, with an additional 19% supporting outright legalization of commerce -- a solid majority in favor of fundamental change in the country's criminal justice approach to the plant. New Zealand newspapers, including the Daily News and the Otago Daily Times, have editorialized in favor of decriminalization in recent weeks. In doing so, they represent the views of their readers. Fully half of all New Zealanders aged 15-50 have used marijuana and 20% had done so in the last year, according to a 1998 national survey. But police arrested 20,000 of them during FY 1998-99, 90% of those for simple possession. Police spent more than $100 million enforcing the marijuana laws during the 1990s, as the Green's Tanczos pointed out at the opening session.
Presenting a lengthy Green Party position paper on the subject (http://www.greens.org.nz/docs/other/010207cannabis_sub.htm), Tanczos criticized the expenditure of law enforcement funds on harassing marijuana users. "It's a total waste of police time and money," he told the committee. "That time and money would be much better spent on investigating crimes of burglary and violence," he added. "It is clear to anyone with an open mind that the current law is failing to reduce the abuse of cannabis and, in fact, may be encouraging it," he said.
Tanczos laid out the Green position in favor of the decriminalization of the smoking and growing of marijuana in small amounts by adults. The party examined other options, from making marijuana possession an infraction, or ticketable offense, to outright legalization, but rejected the former as insufficient and the latter as too risky, Tanczos said.
He also pointed to medical marijuana patients, caught in legal limbo under current law. "I am grieved by the situation of people in genuine pain who just want to use the best medicine to improve their quality of life," he said. "The previous government let them down. I'm asking this government not to do the same."
Even that wasn't enough for the the Aotearoa (New Zealand) Legalize Cannabis Party (http://www.alcp.org.nz). Party leader Michael Appleby, a 54-year-old lawyer, told the committee full legalization was the only fair solution. "Everywhere I go, average Kiwis tell me to persist in the political campaign and agree that mere decriminalization (with attendant fines and subsequent convictions for those who can't pay the fines) does not go far enough," he said in his submission. "It is the poorer members of society who will suffer if cannabis is merely decriminalized, instead of being legalized for personal use for those over 18."
The Medical Association, for its part, offered its self-described "careful" and "conservative" non-opposition to the idea of decriminalization. "We do not oppose a partial decriminalization of cannabis, provided that it can be shown that it does not increase the use and consumption of cannabis," Medical Association president Dr. John Adams told the committee. But then he qualified his already equivocal position. "We are saying we do not oppose it [partial decriminalization], but certainly we are not supporting that as an idea."
Adams said the association was committed to a harm reduction approach to marijuana and other drugs. "We believe that drug addiction is more of a social and health problem than a criminal problem," he told the committee.
Not everyone wants to change the status quo. Educators' associations, who have been a bulwark of opposition to marijuana law reform, will have something to say to the committee. So far, only the Association of Proprietors of Integrated Schools has addressed the committee. In its submission, the association said that marijuana use among students had a deleterious impact on learning.
"Cannabis is the third most widely used drug in New Zealand. The two most commonly used drugs are alcohol and tobacco, both of which are legal," the association said. "Given the harm they do to many individuals, together with the financial costs and the indirect damage to our society, it seems most unlikely they would be made legal if they were discovered today. Why add a third harmful legal drug to the two we are already burdened with?"