Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Govt refusing to smell what public is smoking

Why don't our politicians get the message? Photo / Peter Bromhead
Why don't our politicians get the message? Photo / Peter Bromhead

For a government as poll sensitive as the Key-National administration, its ongoing failure to respond to widespread public support for reforms to our punitive and widely-defied cannabis legislation is odd.

This week, National's own pollsters, Curia Market Research, reported that 64 per cent of New Zealanders believed possession for personal use of a small amount of cannabis should be either legal - 33 per cent, or decriminalised - 31 per cent. Only 34 per cent backed the current law.

The New Zealand Drug Foundation, which commissioned the poll, hailed it as "the first time we've seen such a strong majority in favour of reforming New Zealand's drug laws".

The depressing truth is New Zealanders have been recording majority support for change for many years, yet the politicians from the major parties remain frozen in another age. They still worry whether admitting they puffed a joint at University all those years ago might affect their electoral chances.

Way back at the dawn of the new millennium, In April 2000, a One News Colmar Brunton poll had 55 per cent supporting a law change. A few months later, a UMR Insight poll had 60 per cent favouring change - 41 per cent supporting decriminalisation and 19 per cent for legalising cannabis. A June 2014 Herald-Digipoll survey showed that little had changed in 14 years, with around a third for decriminalisation, 20 per cent for making it legal and 45 per cent for the status quo.

This week's result shows the mood for change is trending upwards, the strongest support for legalising use coming from the 18-30 age group (43 per cent) and the over-60s (35 per cent).

Prime Minister John Key says changing the law would send the wrong message to younger people. To me, they're getting a worse message from the present drug laws. It tells them that unless you're brown, or blow cannabis smoke in a policeman's face, you have every chance of breaking the law and getting away with it. The Law Commission in 2011 estimated 400,000 Kiwis breached the cannabis laws each year.

An in-house Treasury document from 2013, released under the Official Information Act, sums up the situation.

"Current policies do not appear to be effective at reducing the rate of illicit drug use."

It said only 6 per cent of cannabis users come to police attention and, of those users who were arrested, 95 per cent continued to use it afterwards.

The paper pointed to the hypocrisy which allows politicians to legally indulge in their drugs of choice - tobacco and alcohol - even though, says the Treasury, they "are consistently found to be more harmful than some illegal drugs, such as cannabis".

It points to anti-Maori bias - they make up 14.5 per cent of the population but receive 43 per cent of the convictions for cannabis use - and that in 2005/06, the police spent around 600,000 hours and $300 million on illicit drug enforcement.

What the report doesn't rub in is that the police would be better occupied on other matters, such as trying to catch more burglars. Last year, for example, police admit that 59,845 burglaries went unsolved - that's 164 a day. In the Auckland Police District, the success rate was just 6.2 per cent.

No wonder a growing majority believe it's time our parliamentarians called an end to the open season on pot-heads, and freed up the police to chase real criminals.

The Drug Foundation favours replacing the current punitive regime with the decriminalisation model introduced in Portugal in 2001 to fight one of the worst drug epidemics in Europe.

The Portuguese decriminalised minor drug offences for all drugs and set up a public health and social support programme under the five pillars of prevention, dissuasion, harm reduction, treatment and reintegration.

Offenders have to appear before dissuasion panels made up of a lawyer, social worker and medical professional. Most cases are simply suspended. Drug use did not explode following the change, and now tends to follow the trends of other European countries.

The latest poll suggests more New Zealanders now favour legalising cannabis use, rather than just decriminalising it. More importantly, it highlights that two-thirds of us want change, a majority for reform that has stayed consistent for at least 16 years. Why don't our politicians get the message?

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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