John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Campaigners asking for more trouble

'Health approach' for cannabis reform did not work the last time.
Drugs I could never understand. Photo / Paul Taylor
Drugs I could never understand. Photo / Paul Taylor

Dr Lance O'Sullivan, the estimable young Northland GP named New Zealander of the Year not so long ago, put his name to an article in the Herald this week that called for the decriminalising of cannabis. At least, I think it was referring to cannabis when the piece co-authored by the New Zealand Drug Foundation chairman, Tuari Potiki, urged the "drug problem" be treated with health measures rather than criminal law.

Professor Doug Sellman, director of Otago University's National Addiction Centre, left no doubt about it, writing on the same page, "The days of cannabis prohibition in New Zealand appear to be coming to an end."

Both articles praised Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne who seems to have relaxed his resistance to the use of marijuana for medical purposes since it has been openly used for pain relief in the advanced stages of cancer by Paul Holmes, Martin Crowe and, now, the personable trade union leader Helen Kelly.

"The brave admissions by Helen Kelly and others," wrote Professor Sellman, "has helped reignite public discussion about cannabis law in general."

Has it? Possibly I haven't been listening. Growing up in the era of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll I developed an interest in only two of them. Drugs I could never understand. Why would anyone want to mess with their brain? But the libertarian in me says it is their choice, the police have better things to do.

Still, I'd be very surprised if this Government ever contemplates a general decriminalisation because it tried that, at Dunne's suggestion, a few years ago. Remember?

They used the "health approach" for the regulation of new substances called synthetic cannabis and it proved to be a social and political disaster.

I am sure public health campaigners such as Professor Sellman remember the parade of misery and disgust on Campbell Live at the time, the impassioned appeals from mothers of those openly buying the stuff, the wretched characters coming and going from the few approved suppliers in unfortunate shopping centres in less salubrious suburbs.

I'm sure they do remember but they haven't worked out why the policy went wrong. Poor neighbourhoods are a long way from university seminars.

Economic regulators realised a long time ago that while controlling the quality of products on a market can be a good thing to do, controlling the quantity of supplies or suppliers is almost never wise.

Health regulators haven't much time for economics and don't much like markets. So when they were given the task of bringing some law and order to the wild new business of party drugs and chemical highs, they did not just look for a way to test them for safety, they invited councils to control the number of licensed outlets. The result was a blight on the chosen places and a political outcry that caused the Government to call the thing off. I doubt that any party in Parliament wants to go back there.

But Professor Sellman does. He is better known for his arguments with the liquor industry and he is worried that legalised cannabis would become a lively business. "There is a danger that an 18-degree switch might occur, from prohibition to commercialisation," he wrote. "Lobbying of our parliamentarians may already be under way by business leaders salivating at the new fortunes they anticipate reaping ... "

He wants to see extremely tight state control of cannabis, possibly through a dedicated state-owned enterprise given a monopoly on it. Seriously.

I'm trying to imagine what state cannabis stores would look like. Sellman described state alcohol monopolies in Scandinavia, where he found information on harm displayed at the entrance and "absence of ugly alcohol marketing", limited hours for purchasing and a lack of discounted products. Can't see it for cannabis.

Synthetic cannabis was being openly sold on a free market in this country for several years before the Government caught up with it. It was sitting on the counter under various brands anywhere that sold party pills. Oddly enough, we didn't see or hear much evidence of social damage until the health regulators got hold of it.

Once it was taken out of their hands and prohibited, we were warned it would go underground, but years have passed and we don't see or hear anything about it now. A principal manufacturer went broke some time later. Prohibition is not completely hopeless.

It didn't work for alcohol but public health campaigns make a mistake, I think, when they put alcohol in the same category as drugs taken purely for a hit in the head. Drinking is pleasant in itself. When the minds starts to spin from alcohol, the pleasure is over. Drugs that do nothing for you up to that point have no redeeming social benefit to my mind. But it's not my business.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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