Prohibitive drug laws have been used to reinforce racism and are even more harmful than the substances they outlaw, say two drug law reformists visiting from the US.
And they are urging New Zealanders to vote to legalise recreational cannabis at next year's referendum because it would allow drug users to avoid black market cannabis that might be mixed with other substances.
Lawyer Deborah Small and author Asha Bandele are the keynote speakers at the NZ Drug Foundation's annual symposium, Through the Maze, at Parliament today.
Small said that drug policy and racism went hand in hand, both in the drugs chosen to be illegal and in the way the law was applied.
"The very first drug laws we had were first written in San Francisco and specifically directed at the Chinese community, even though opiate use was not exclusive to that community. The laws passed were only about the ways that Chinese people accessed opium.
"In the same way, the term 'marijuana' was not used in the US until it became associated with Hispanic workers coming up from Mexico. In the 1910s, they said cocaine was turning black people into fiends that you needed bigger bullets to stop.
"There is no country on the planet that doesn't use drug laws to target whichever is their marginalised population."
One of Richard Nixon's top advisers, John Ehrlichman, has reportedly said that the war on drugs was a political tool to fight blacks and anti-war hippies, the enemies of the Nixon White House.
"We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities," Ehrlichman told Harper's Magazine.
"We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
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But police will still have discretion, and that leaves the door open to racial bias , Small said.
"Marginalised populations, like Maori here, will continue to be overrepresented in the justice system that still addresses drug use as a crime, even if it doesn't punish as harshly as it used to."
In New Zealand, Maori are also 3.8 times more likely to face a conviction than non-Maori, while Ministry of Justice statistics show about 40 per cent of those charged and convicted for drug offences are Māori, who make up about 15 per cent of the population.
Police have acknowledged the reality of unconscious biases and have a set of programmes to mitigate them.
Both Small and Bandele urged New Zealanders to vote to legalise recreational cannabis at next year's referendum.
Small conceded that cannabis could be harmful, particularly to teenagers, but prohibition had also failed to stop teenagers from using cannabis.
"For the last 50 years, all of our data has shown that at least 50 per cent of all youth have tried cannabis by the time they're 18. So none of the laws around enforcement have impacted that.
"But what has happened is they've had access to adulterated cannabis, mixed with other drugs, that can be even more harmful. Legal regulation is the best way to protect all of the public, including children."
By that rationale, she advocates for all drugs to come under a legal, regulated market.
"It protects drug users by ensuring they have a safe, unadulterated supply of whatever it is they are using, which is in everyone's best interests."
Small lives in California, which legalised medical cannabis in 1996 and recreational cannabis in 2016.
"There has been no significant increase in youth use of cannabis or in youth-related crime or youth-related health consequences related to the expansion of that market."
She added that legalisation had smashed some drug myths, including around who used drugs.
"Drug use is equally distributed socio-economically. One of the many pernicious aspects of prohibition and the way it reinforces racism is that it allows people to be in denial about the problems in their own communities.
"When California went to a regulated market and folks could come to a dispensary, they were everyone from 18- and 19-year-olds that people would think were stoners to 70- and 80-year olds that no one thought knew anything about cannabis."
Bandele said that social stigma around drugs was a serious problem and society treated drugs as evil, and drug users as bad people.
"Drugs are just drugs. They don't have a value. We impose a value on them. They can be used for good or bad. It's about how humans interact with them, or choose to.
"We don't send people out in cars without seatbelts or airbags or traffic laws. Cars used well can get us where we need to go. Used poorly they can destroy the planet and kill people."
Small, who uses cannabis daily, said prohibition was more harmful than the substances it banned.
"We can have healthy or unhealthy relationship with things. Addiction is when the relationship with drugs goes from being a good one to a bad one. But prohibition actually drives people to use drugs in more dangerous ways.
"Alcohol is a prime example. Even though people have access to all kinds of alcohol, the majority of people don't buy over-proof drinks.
"They drink more moderately, and our experience is that when people, in general, have the information, they will use things in a more moderate and safer way."