This week New Zealand takes a big step towards allowing the medical use of cannabis.

Considering even the home of the "War on Drugs", the USA, has moved to decriminalise and legalise cannabis in almost all states, it's surprising how much controversy this still stirs up here in Aotearoa.

Ultimately, all illicit drug use is a debate about compassion versus punishment. The compassion seems more obvious with the "medical use" bills currently before Parliament, the punishment more obvious with recreational use.

But what is now beyond question, even though many people's views are still to catch up, is the punishment approach - via prohibition - has failed and continues to fail. We lost the war on drugs because it was never the drugs we were fighting, it was people.

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I remember when psychotherapy was petitioning to become a registered health profession here in New Zealand. What struck me was as a profession we didn't have to prove that what we did worked, but instead prove it had the potential to cause harm.

It seemed like a very negative way to frame the argument, but that is the whole point of government regulation: to protect people from harm.

And so, every time I hear people express concern that allowing people to grow a few plants, or use cannabis for their own pain management, worries them because it's a dangerous drug that can cause harm – I want to scream.

In nearly 20 years doing my job, and working for addiction services for parts of that, I've seen the harm. I've seen people disappear into addiction and struggle to return.

I've also seen the harm that criminal charges can do to people struggling with addiction.

The best way to help those who are negatively affected by their cannabis use is to offer them the help they need, as well as regulating the manufacture, distribution and sale of the drug itself, in a controlled and non-commercial manner.

Starting with medical use makes sense, because those in pain, in the late stages of terminal illness, need it the most. It is here where society's compassion is most needed.

So for those who argue that cannabis is a gateway drug, they're right. It's a gateway to finally treating people who use and misuse ALL drugs that are currently illegal with compassion.

Because it is not just those who are terminally ill who need our compassion and understanding.

How can we continue to be so cruel as to make criminals out of terminally ill patients, whose pain is alleviated by the consumption of a simple plant, that human beings have consumed for centuries?

And how can we continue to treat all those who suffer addiction with such disdain, and continue to criminalise suffering?