I really feel for my parents sometimes. First there was the nearly topless photo (my modesty preserved by strategically placed hands) that went around the world as part of the #MyBodyMyTerms campaign. Then I started writing eyebrow-raising columns in a national newspaper. Then I made a webseries all about sex.
Now I've made a webseries about drugs.
It could've been worse, I tell them. I sidestepped teen pregnancy, tattoos, and nose piercings. I passed my exams. Graduated from university. You could say I'm just balancing the scales now. I couldn't be a goody-two-shoes all my life.
Over the past few months, I've been up to my eyeballs (metaphorically speaking) in meth, cannabis, cocaine and MDMA, among others, making The REAL Drug Talk. The series is a sequel to The REAL Sex Talk, aiming to give young people evidentially sound information about drugs and alcohol to help them make healthy choices – without putting them to sleep.
The main goal is to reduce the harm that can be caused by drugs and alcohol, particularly to young people. Unpalatable as it may be, there is a relatively small percentage of young New Zealanders using drugs and drinking, and funnily enough, telling young people not to do something doesn't generally stop them. The REAL Drug Talk gives young people straight-up information to help them to understand the risks of using substances, and to help them make safer decisions.
It's timely, as New Zealand debates whether to change the legal framework around cannabis – one of the most commonly used substances for young people.
There's no point denying the prominence of cannabis. It would be a pretty safe bet that everyone knows someone who has tried cannabis. Given its widespread use around the country – and the tidy regular income it provides to gangs, funding their various criminal activities – it's clear that the current legislation around cannabis isn't working.
In New Zealand, the legislative framework, more than 40 years old, is as outdated as it is punitive. The Misuse of Drugs Act sought to criminalise both drug dealers and users. It achieved its outcomes, costing the justice system billions and causing drastic harm to families and communities – most severely to Māori. As an instrument of the "war on drugs" it was extremely effective at throwing people in jail, breaking up families, damaging employment prospects and making people with drug problems too fearful to seek help. It was extremely useless at preventing people from using drugs or protecting them from drug-related harm.
With the proposed regulation of cannabis, the Government has taken a public health approach. Contrary to the scaremongering suggestions of some dinosaur commentators, in proposing strictly limited licensing, the banning of advertising and the control of commercial supply levels, the coalition is adopting a conservative framework.
From the details that have been released in the Cabinet paper, it's clear that regulation and control are the main aims of the draft bill, in line with the Government's desire to reduce drug harm.
Such an approach won't impress the corporate cannabis producers or some more hard-core cannabis fans. Other administrations overseas, such as California and Oregon, have opted for more free market-friendly regimes, with negative public health impacts. The strictly controlled market approach is considerably more sensible, and will prevent the replication of the enormous corporate influence currently enjoyed by alcohol companies.
Harm reduction simply must be at the heart of the cannabis discussion. I've heard commentators raise concerns about drug-driving, mental health and the neurological development of young people using cannabis under the proposed regulatory framework. Do these people not realise that all of this is happening right now? Drug users are already driving while stoned. Heavy cannabis users are already developing dependencies and experiencing mental illness. Kids much younger than 20 are already using cannabis, with varying impacts upon their neurological development.
Treating drug users as criminals is not stopping any of this. By regulating cannabis and removing the fear of punitive consequences, we will have a better chance of getting people the help they need to reduce their use or stop altogether. By implementing an age limit of 20, we'll make it harder for young people to access cannabis at an age when it may affect their neurological development (let's be honest; black market drug dealers aren't exactly known for checking their clients' IDs).
By creating public education campaigns, people will start to think of drug-driving the same way they think about drink-driving. I know the "If you drink and drive you're a bloody idiot" campaign from the 90s has made me much less likely to get behind the wheel after consuming alcohol. Public education campaigns on the potential harm caused by cannabis will prevent future generations making the mistakes some of their parents made.
The finer details of the draft bill are yet to be fleshed out, and there are many questions to be answered. Will historic cannabis convictions be expunged? (They should be.) Will Māori, who have been disproportionately harmed by addiction, criminalisation and their wider community implications, be given access to special licences in an attempt to address social justice and inequity? The Cabinet paper doesn't say, but by the time the referendum rolls around, we will have all of the information we need to have a mature and sensible debate on the issue.
It's beyond time that we had a decent national conversation around drugs, especially cannabis. Our current framework is almost as harmful as the drugs themselves. It's time we detoxed the system.
Lizzie Marvelly is the co-producer, co-director and co-writer of The REAL Drug Talk. She is also a member of the board of the New Zealand Drug Foundation.
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