Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Hulse keeping marijuana reform pot on the boil

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Penny Hulse, Deputy Mayor of Auckland. Photo / Richard Robinson
Penny Hulse, Deputy Mayor of Auckland. Photo / Richard Robinson

It was a true "emperor has no clothes on" moment - Auckland Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse asking her colleagues why they were tying themselves into knots over regulating synthetic cannabis use, without taking into account that the natural, illegal alternative was a safer drug.

She said: "I think we need to take a deep breath in this conversation and say what are we trying to achieve? Are we going to deal with the issue that people are going to make choices to smoke things that get them stoned? Have we been able to stop people doing that? Absolutely we haven't."

A few weeks earlier, writing on The Daily Blog website, Ms Hulse had written of her recent change of mind over marijuana use. Until then she had been against legalising it, believing "we have enough trouble with alcohol".

However, "we cannot pretend that we can solve the issues by pushing them underground, the alternative is challenging but I think we are ready for the debate.

The need to escape our day-to-day life via a variety of chemical substances is as old as humanity, let's get over the prejudice and on with finding a humane way forward".

In March, she says she joined her "fellow Westies" in a march through Henderson about the impact of "legal highs" on the community. She didn't share the call to ban the products, but did share her fellow marchers' concern "for the impact on our community of these synthesised chemical cocktails on our vulnerable, young and poor".

Over recent months, she has found herself advocating for a major change in the legal status of marijuana "as a result of talking to users, doctors, community workers and long-time smokers of organic marijuana. The overwhelming consensus is that, compared with the chemically synthesised, variably manufactured psychoactive substances, organic marijuana is a way less damaging option".

She says that the emergence of legal highs has brought the debate to a head.

The veteran local politician is being praised by reform campaigners as "courageous". As a potential Auckland mayoral candidate in 2016, her move is also politically canny when you consider, for example, that 84 per cent in a recent Campbell Live poll backed similar views.

It harks back to 2011, when Act leader Don Brash argued for decriminalisation, saying the police and the courts spent about $100 million a year enforcing the prohibition of a drug believed by many people to be less dangerous than tobacco or alcohol.

He asked: "Is there really any point to this?" He said about 6000 people were prosecuted every year for cannabis offences and 400,000 New Zealanders were estimated to use cannabis.

Unfortunately, Dr Brash was not the obvious poster-boy for drug reform. Now it's Ms Hulse's turn. She seems keen to keep the issue moving forward, declaring over the weekend, "the time is right to call together a well-informed group of thought leaders to have a rational, non-political and informed forum on how to move towards a more sensible approach to marijuana".

She added: "I am not advocating for legalisation, I don't know yet what the right answer is but I want us to have the debate. We took on the issue of prostitution and dealt with it well, time now to deal with this issue."

A good candidate for her talkfest would be retired Waikato Police District Commander and former national crime manager Win van der Velde. On his retirement in February, he told the Waikato Times that legalising the use of cannabis was "a step too far" because of its "negative health effects", but he did support looking at the option of decriminalisation. Mr van der Velde said police tied up court time charging people with low-level cannabis use.

He asked: "Why do we expel kids for being down the back of the school experimenting with a cannabis joint when school is actually a safe environment to experiment?"

He argued that if one were to compare the harm across society caused by cannabis and alcohol then alcohol would be as bad, if not worse, than cannabis.

The recent emergence of synthetic cannabis substitutes, and the politicians' muddled response, has highlighted the need for a rethink of the law on recreational drugs.
Last year's Psychoactive Substances Act is now in ruins, following the panicked reaction of politicians to reports of deleterious side effects on some users to some of the approved products.

What the politicians failed to confront was endless expert advice that the illegal genuine organic marijuana was less harmful than the synthetic chemical substitutes they were endeavouring to endorse and regulate.

Having voted 119-1 to approve the sale of these synthetic recreational drugs, our politicians can no longer either stand on principle against drug use, or rationally defend the decades-long ban on natural marijuana. Especially now that the synthetic marijuana has turned out to be much more addictive and dodgy than good old New Zealand Green. I look forward to the Hulse inquiry.

Debate on this argument is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

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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