Helen Clark is going to enjoy this Government, lending her voice to policies she likes knowing she has no obligation to defend things that go wrong. This week she advocated the decriminalisation of drugs.

It's a subject we are all going to be asked to decide in a referendum to be held at or before the next election.

The NZ Drug Foundation, a name that sounds more official than it is, takes heart that 64 per cent of us in a survey say we support a change to the prohibition of cannabis and reckons "calls are getting louder by the day for a new approach to methamphetamine".

I don't know about methamphetamine but I would probably have been among the 64 per cent for the legalising or decriminalising of cannabis if I hadn't read exactly what the Drug Foundation has in mind.

Advertisement

Decriminalisation, which it proposes, is a heavily restricted half-way house to legalisation and like most half-way houses it would be worse than either complete liberalisation or the status quo.

Policing the restrictions would require far more time and expense than police devote to the present law, while treating cannabis as a health problem rather than a crime would legitimise the drug in the minds of potential users and give them hefty new claims on the taxpayer.

Here is the brave new world of decriminalised cannabis as outlined in a Drug Foundation paper, Whakawatea te Huarahi - A model drug law to 2020 and beyond:

Individuals would be allowed to grow up to three plants, or six for a household. The garden could not be visible from the street. They could give homegrown cannabis to friends but not sell it. Imagine the policing that would require.

A licensing authority would be set up to control a commercial supply. Commercial growers would be kept small scale by restrictions on the number of their plants. Their packaging would have to be approved. We have the foundations of a new bureaucracy there.

Licensed outlets would have to be "as dry and uninteresting as possible" and not highly visible from the street.They would have to be a certain distance from schools, alcohol off licences and other cannabis outlets. You get the picture? You saw it on TV four years ago.

Helen Clark was at the UN when we briefly legalised a drug like cannabis. You miss things when you are out of the country. You can keep up with the news online but you miss the ambiance, the noise around the news. The previous Government's experience in 2013-14 was an interesting lesson in politics that I'm sure would have fascinated Labour's former Prime Minister had she been here.

Peter Dunne, as Associate Health Minister, persuaded the Cabinet to set up a licensing system for dance party stimulants that been openly on the market for about 10 years by then. They were called synthetic cannabis, their chemistry being comparable to the plant.

Advertisement

Eventually officialdom decided substances so potent ought to be regulated and it would be done much as cannabis law reformers propose for the real thing. Producers could apply for their products to be assessed for safety and approved for sale, the number and location of outlets to be strictly controlled by local councils.

In July 2013 a number of products were given interim approval and within months it was proving a political disaster. Distraught mothers were calling radio stations and appearing on Campbell Live, blaming the Government for the damage the pills were doing to their families. Communities were complaining about the druggies congregating in their malls and children's playgrounds.

After nine months the Government cancelled the approvals, banned the lot.

The political lesson, I think, is that the criminal law is not just a punitive device, it is a very clear statement that society does not sanction the drug. That statement is equally clear whether the police enforce the law strongly or not. A law honoured largely in the breach still says, "You take this at your own risk." Drop that law and every pothead becomes the Government's problem.

The other lesson was economic: if you are going to legalise an already popular drug don't try to restrict the number and location of outlets and the scale of suppliers. You are asking for exactly the stresses we witnessed four years ago.

I don't care if we legalise cannabis but don't treat it as a health problem. Of all the calls on my compassion and taxes, drug abuse ranks last quite frankly. I can't see why anyone needs more than alcohol which is pleasant to consume without being drunk. Illegal drugs are not particularly pleasant until they hit you in the head.

Let those who want cannabis have it but let's ensure the law continues to say it's their own look out.