New Zealand may be at the bottom of the planet but is the highest in the world, according to a United Nations report on drug use released this week, which said Kiwis and Australians are the biggest users of cannabis in the world.
The United Nations 2014 World Drug Use Report, which groups New Zealand and Australia together as Oceania, estimated that between 9 and 14 per cent of the population in NZ and Australia use cannabis.
The estimated annual use worldwide of cannabis is between about 3 and 5 per cent.
The UN report comes at a time when new regulatory frameworks in the states of Colorado and Washington in the United States, and in Uruguay, now make the recreational use of cannabis legal under some restrictions.
This move has prompted some in this country to lobby for the legalisation of cannabis in NZ. Yet this week's UN report makes damning reading for the pro-cannabis lobby.
The report says it is too early to understand the impact of these regulatory changes on recreational and problematic use of cannabis, and in the areas they may affect, including health, criminal justice, and public expenditures.
It cites expert analyses on the impact of the legalisation of cannabis: the reduced production costs would put downward pressure on prices, and since cannabis consumption responds to prices, the lower prices will probably lead to higher consumption. It is estimated that for each 10 per cent drop in price, there will be about a 3 per cent rise in the total number of users and a 3 to 5 per cent rise in new young users.
The risks of cannabis for early users are listed, including "heavy dependence, lung problems, memory impairment, psychosocial development problems and mental health problems, and poorer cognitive performance associated with early initiation and persistent use between the early teenage years and adulthood".
While pro-cannabis supporters may argue that it does not lead to further drug use, the evidence points to the fact it does. The UN report finds that polydrug use is a common occurrence among recreational and regular drug users. In a US study, almost half of treatment admissions were for polydrug use, with alcohol, cocaine and cannabis being the most common substances.
Nor do I buy the image of cannabis users as peace-loving stoners. Last week we reported that police had seized 112 firearms nationally from people involved in the drug trade as part of their annual cannabis operation.
A look back at stories last month alone shows the link between cannabis and crime. In the Bay of Plenty, more than 15,000 cannabis plants were seized this year, with police saying $40 million of social harm was prevented. In these police raids, as well as cannabis, police found methamphetamine, LSD, ecstasy, ammunition and firearms. At 18 of the properties, 26 children were found.
The UN report notes the correlation between crime and drug use. Worldwide, the large majority of drug-use offences for the period 2003 to 2012 are associated with cannabis, in contrast to the general declining trend in property-related and violent crime.
Is it just coincidence that, alongside the dubious accolade of being the biggest cannabis users in the world, New Zealand also has a poor record in child abuse and domestic violence?
A recent Herald DigiPoll showed 20 per cent of respondents favoured legal cannabis, more than 30 per cent supported decriminalisation, and 45 per cent wanted to maintain prohibition. Yet earlier this year the strength of public opinion opposing synthetic cannabis forced regulatory change and perhaps indicates that there is little appetite for political reform.
As a parent, the UN report makes sobering and frightening reading. Parents I know put drug and alcohol use in New Zealand, as well as bullying, top of the list of their worst fears for their children in the future. It's far more concerning than affordable housing and class sizes. I will not be voting for any party that softens the current line on drugs. On the contrary, more could be done. As well as prohibition I think there should be more education about drug risks. With a general election looming, voters can mark their preference.
Annemarie Quill is a journalist at the Bay of Plenty Times.