An international conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York this week is expected to agree that the UN's "war on drugs" is over, and it has failed. In its place, delegates will probably agree, certain drugs should be decriminalised and treated as a health problem. Most people will probably agree, particularly where cannabis is concerned. Smoking the leaf of a plant that is fairly easily cultivated has proved impossible to stamp out, and a charge of possession of cannabis has long ranked as one of the most common and least serious of criminal offences in countries such as ours.

The case for its decriminalisation has been strengthened of late by those who have admitted committing the crime of the alleviation of their pain in their battles with cancer. Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne, who evidently has the authority to approve the use of cannabis for this purpose, had no advice that the plant's properties were superior to other pain-killers on the market but he appears to have relented in the face of testimony from the late Sir Paul Holmes and Martin Crowe and, now, former union leader Helen Kelly.

It is easy to agree that, regardless of whether cannabis is more effective than other painkillers, if people fighting cancer find it helpful they should be able to have it legally.

Likewise, it is easy to agree that recreational use should be permitted since prohibition has not worked. Some who agree with that statement will do so because they believe cannabis does no harm, or at least no more harm than alcohol. Others will agree because they believe cannabis is harmful and ought to be discouraged. They hope health regulation might be more effective to that end than the criminal law has been.


The UN conference is likely to take the latter view. But agreeing on decriminalisation in principle is the easy part. If possession is no longer to be a crime, what about growing or supplying? If it remains illegal to grow it, or to grow more than a specified quantity for personal use, how would cancer sufferers receive a supply? Is it practical to legalise a small industry for medicinal purposes, but not for general use? And how ill would people need to be before they could lawfully buy it? Would it need to be available only on prescription? That would seem excessive.

The health argument for general decriminalisation is that it would be easier to discourage use of the drug if users are no longer afraid of the law. It might also mean that the quality of the drug can be controlled, though that would require decriminalising its production and distribution so supplies of the required standard could be licensed and accompanied by the warnings and advice that public health campaigns have attached to alcohol and tobacco. Those would not be as effective if only home-grown cannabis for personal use is permitted.

A commercial supply of cannabis has been legal in a few countries for some time now and it remains a fairly low profile business in those places. It is not everyone's cup of tea and, fortunately, it's unlikely it ever will be.

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