I smoked dope at school. It's not the only thing I did; I also got an education. But on a couple of occasions a mate and I wandered under a bridge down on Wairoa Road and sparked a joint. Looking back it was pretty stupid. That bridge is in open sight. It's a real rookie place to be conducting nefarious activity.

Smoking the dope itself at school wasn't that bright either, but how we tackle the issues can be significantly more stupid.

In the war on drugs, the frontline trenches in our secondary schools remain as ubiquitous as pimples and bullrush.

The police have long given up prosecuting for smoking cannabis. They should be charging, of course, because it's the police's role to uphold the law not create it, but in the face of politicians' inertia the police stance is a sensible one. Even Grey Power favours some cannabis reform. When did our grandparents become cooler than us?

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But many schools, it seems, haven't got the message. Chances are if you smoke cannabis you'll be tossed out, at least for a short while.

For most errant behaviours, nationwide rates of suspensions and expulsions have been declining for quite a few years. This doesn't necessarily mean that New Zealand's students are becoming better behaved, but rather schools are exploring better ways to discipline kids than kicking them to touch. We have become more willing to work constructively with students on a number of behaviour issues, but when it comes to drugs many schools are stuck in the past.

Removing kids from school for cannabis use is a crazy sanction. Kids who are smoking dope don't need less education, they need more. The consequences of the punishment are worse than the crime.

School is the most important socialising force in many young people's lives; cutting them off and sending them home isn't a solution, it's an exacerbation. Even for kids from good homes, stigmatising activities can have a negative effect by drawing a false equivalence between petty drug offending and more serious crime. Sociologists call this theory "Labelling", and the concept is rather simple: if you tell someone they're a criminal, they're likely to start believing it. Once a young person is known to be a bad egg, they play up to that role. The label sticks, as it were.

Nobody is arguing that young people smoking cannabis is a great thing; it's not. Heavy use is bad for brain development and being stoned is hardly a motivating experience, but given a quarter of secondary school students try it and most will have little or no problems stemming from its actual effects, excluding them is a daft response.

It's not the only crazy scenario in our war on drugs. My personal favourite is how police train undercover agents to smoke dope by getting them to smoke dope in a classroom at police training college, so they can smoke dope in the field to bust dope dealers, because smoking dope is bad for people. The mental gymnastics needed to justify that scenario will make even the straightest among us feel stoned.

All in all, broader public drug policies have tended to be some of the most illogical, and this set the tone throughout. While many countries have tackled this issue head on, New Zealand has been a terrible laggard. Who wins from this political inaction?

Nobody.

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If this government wants to be transformational and still balance the budget, it would do well to look at drug reform. Despite ignoring the smokers technically breaking the law, we still spend significant sums of money on cannabis policing and convictions around dealing, the return on investment is staggeringly poor. Furthermore, it will send a signal to schools that education rather than punishment is the key.

The overall political risks are minimal, surveys show most people are in favour, and when the sky doesn't fall following their implementation they will have created an important legacy.

I for one will loudly applaud even though it won't directly affect me. I long ago gave up smoking dope. I prefer alcohol. And goodness knows no harm comes from that.


Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is an award-winning writer who specialises in research with practical applications.