Comment: New Zealand's drug laws are well overdue for an overhaul, writes Davey Smith.

The proposed referendum on legalising cannabis (including medicinal) for the next general election, hopefully will be the impetus for a total re-evaluation of how recreational drugs are regulated and treated by the authorities.

The current law is based on legislature from the 1970s, which is all about criminalising the manufacturers, suppliers and users of certain substances rated over three classes.

Think about that.


The underpinning law comes from a time when people could be arrested for smoking a joint, but on the other hand people were being prescribed Valium pills like they were lollies and even the Prime Minister could get away with being drunk at work.

We live in a different era but some of the same paradoxes remain, in part because of the law.

There are many functioning alcoholics in this country who are considered good law-abiding citizens, providing they don't get violent, drink on the job or drive while intoxicated.

The same can be said for many people dependent on mood-altering prescription drugs.

However, if someone enjoys a couple of joints at the weekends or perhaps likes popping an ecstasy tablet at a party or nightclub they are still regarded as criminals in the eyes of the law and the conservative mainstream.

It would be justified to start our drug legislation from scratch. Call me cynical but it won't happen because of one thing – alcohol.

The country's favourite leisure drug is involved in a significant number of domestic violence cases, to blame for many road fatalities, involved in an abundance of vandalism cases and has well-established health dangers.

So, a modern approach to drug regulation, with a total reassessment of all popular drugs for related harm and health issues, could easily see liquor rated just as damaging as drugs currently outlawed.

This would leave the government in a corner, as the country has a love affair with alcohol and our politicians always seem reluctant to upset the powerful liquor industry.

To be fair we know from history that prohibition of alcohol does not work. All it does is create organised crime networks to supply consumers.

This in turn means the users are connected to criminal groups and consuming products that are not tested and regulated in anyway for safety.

Which brings us to the reason why legalising cannabis is a no-brainer.

The suppliers and users of cannabis need to come out of the criminal world and into the mainstream. This way the drug can be properly controlled, with testing for safety and all the regulatory protection that being legal provides.

It will no doubt be a complex process which a raft of aspects to be considered – who will be able to sell it, how will quality and strength be tested and restricted, and how do you control how it is used as an additive. It's a minefield but one the government needs to negotiate.

The anti campaigners, which ironically will probably have support from the liquor lobby, will no doubt make a big issue of the possible health dangers, especially for those under 25 with developing brains, and workplace and driving impairment dangers.

But these arguments could just as easily be targeted at alcohol and a number of prescription medicines.

The anti camp will also suggest that cannabis is a stepping stone to stronger drugs. However, research studies have mixed conclusions on this – with many factors including social situations and alcohol use muddying the analyses.

Legalisation would need to coincide with an intense education campaign covering all prominent drugs in our society.

It would also be hoped that, with cannabis off their radar, Police would be able to direct more staff and resources at targeting the most harmful drugs – specifically methamphetamine and synthetics.

The government would need to an equally big commitment to enhance treatment opportunities for addicts.

There should be no delays for anyone seeking help.

Hopefully the debates leading up to the referendum will bring these points and more to fore so the country can enter a new, more realistic and effective way of dealing with recreational drugs.

Supporting change is not about advocating drug use.

We need a system that focuses on minimising harm and dealing with the health issues from drug use.