Here we go again with a debate around drugs and their possession and whether we should follow many states around the western world in treating the use of drugs as a health issue or a crime.
Now that we know so much more about drugs, their effects, both long and short term, I would like to think we might make more rational decisions.
If we start by recognising that more people are hurt and killed by misuse of alcohol than any other drug, but the possession of alcohol is not a crime unless in a liquor-ban area or an open container in a public place in possession of a minor.
There is no offence for even very young people drinking alcohol in a private place. But if crime ensues from the consumption of alcohol, we quite rightly jump on that and the book is thrown at it swift and hard.
Driving with excess blood/alcohol; assaults; disorderly behaviours all the way down to urinating in a public place. Having said that, we highly regulate the sale and supply of alcohol and we prosecute those who break those laws.
Why not do the same with other drugs? Part of the reason is that the laws we are operating under were created a long time ago when we knew very little about drugs in society and the laws were made with no consultation with everyday users.
Cannabis was a relatively new drug in 1975 when the Misuse of Drugs legislation was enacted but recreational use was sky-rocketing. Something had to be done quickly and unforeseen consequences were everywhere including the high numbers of otherwise law-abiding people who were criminalised.
The law in relation to cannabis particularly never really had much of a deterrent effect as most baby-boomers have smoked cannabis at least once, but we are not a nation of criminals. We thought cannabis was a gateway to hard-drugs but this hasn't turned out to be the case. In fact, if the same argument was applied to other drugs, the gateway drug would probably be coffee.
The legal presumption that possession was for the purposes of supply was set at 28 grams. If the uninitiated can picture a pouch of loose 'roll-your-own' tobacco purchased at a dairy, then that is about the same physical size of a bag of cannabis that someone could argue was per personal use. But no more than that.
The new Bill provides that prosecutions should only be brought in the public interest. It is very unlikely that there would ever be a public interest in prosecutions for possession for personal use, especially in comparison to a health intervention like referral to drug counselling for example.
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So, some are saying it is decriminalisation by stealth. We have seen this language before in the new section 59 legislation around smacking children, so it is not new. In fact, that language came from former Prime Minister Sir John Key, when he was leading the Opposition.
We are likely to see far fewer prosecutions for possessory drug offences than currently and a different approach from police on these matters. It is not uncommon for individual cannabis pipes and bongs, plants, and plant material located in the course of a search to result in a myriad of charges the seriousness of which vastly outweighs the gravity of personal use.
This might result in seven or eight convictions where one would have accounted proportionately for the offending, if there need to be a charge at all.
Recently in Northland Police and the DHB have piloted a programme where users have been identified from the arrest of dealers and the seizure of records held on paper or on devices.
The users, customers of the dealers, have then been referred for drug therapy and counselling rather than preferring charges. This seems like a far better use of government resources, the time of health practitioners, and holds a greater hope for the future of all those effected by the drug use including the family and community in which the user lives.
Legislation should never be made on the hoof, off the cuff, or for the politics of it. It is time to look more reasonably and pragmatically at drug use as distinct from drug dealing.
Let's hope the powers that be get it right this time.