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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Better to declare a truce in war on drugs

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Even the US president thinks marijuana gets a bad rap

This week Barack Obama became the first US president to depart from prohibitionist orthodoxy. Photo / AP
This week Barack Obama became the first US president to depart from prohibitionist orthodoxy. Photo / AP

Is this the beginning of the end of the War on Drugs? Uruguay has legislated to decriminalise marijuana.

Colorado and Washington state are following suit. And this week Barack Obama became the first American president to depart from prohibitionist orthodoxy.

"I view (smoking pot) as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life," he said. "I don't think it's more dangerous than alcohol."

It was important, he added, for the two states' legalisation of marijuana to proceed.

This was a big statement coming from the commander-in-chief of the global war on drugs and first citizen of the country whose insatiable appetite for recreational drugs drives a black market, now estimated to be worth more than $500 billion a year.

Equally significant was the response - or lack of it. There wasn't a chorus demanding Obama's resignation or moves in Congress to initiate impeachment proceedings. Indeed, if silence means consent, the muted reaction suggests many in the US political establishment either agree with the thrust of his remarks or are at least coming around to the view that this issue isn't as black and white as they've previously insisted.

Perhaps reality is finally starting to bite.

Compare the reaction here two years ago when Don Brash, in his brief incarnation as ACT leader, advocated the decriminalisation of marijuana. With the honourable exception of the Greens, derision rained down upon him from across the political spectrum. The Prime Minister had this to say: "Ask parents if they want their children smoking a joint before going to school."

It has long been my contention that prohibition is a largely futile, vastly wasteful, destructively counter-productive wallow in wilful ignorance which future generations will contemplate with slack-jawed disbelief. In that vein, I'd like to think that in the not-too-distant future, John Key will look back on this comment with regret and a slight reddening of the cheeks.

It was unworthy of our intelligent, worldly and, by international standards, moderate Prime Minister because it reduced the debate to the fatuous proposition that putting marijuana on the same legal footing as alcohol and tobacco would inevitably lead to Kiwi kids smoking dope as they stow their homework in their backpacks.

Plenty of people argued that decriminalisation of homosexuality, which happened in 1986, would cause the collapse of civilisation. Some still do, although there's little evidence to suggest it has led to children engaging in gay hanky-panky before going to school.

Key went on to say: "There's no place for drugs in our society." Actually, there are more places than you could shake a stick at: you wouldn't have to venture far from your front door to find one.

The issue isn't drugs in society. They will always be with us because mankind has a fondness for mood-altering substances that shows no sign of diminishing. The issue is how we control supply and distribution and deal with drug users in order to limit the drain on law enforcement and judicial resources, the social and financial costs and the human suffering.

Prohibitionists reject any comparison with alcohol and tobacco on the grounds that they are legal and marijuana isn't, and there's an end to the matter.

This presupposes that the law is both sacrosanct and set in stone, when in fact it's neither.

Many people who see themselves as law-abiding citizens break the law, whether by exceeding the speed limit or paying tradespeople in cash or flouting shop-trading hours. Their justification is that the infractions are harmless and/or the law is an ass.

The prohibitionists' second barrel is that, given the harm alcohol and cigarettes do, why would we encourage a third harmful vice by making dope legal?

This shows a touching faith in the law's deterrent effect and an ignorance of how widespread drug use actually is. I'd suggest that most people who want to take drugs are already doing so, uninhibited by the fact that they're breaking the law.

It puzzles me why political - as opposed to social - conservatives cling to prohibition. Small-c conservatives have traditionally prided themselves on being realists, on seeing the world as it is rather than as they'd like it to be, on making decisions based on empirical evidence rather than idealism or doctrine.

Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, summarised the Uruguayan process thus: "The Uruguayans looked long and hard at the evidence of the War on Drugs approach which showed that it's enormously expensive, but it neither deters use nor reduces availability.

"They've decided the pragmatic solution is to put the government, rather than gangsters, in control of the cannabis market."

- NZ Herald

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