Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

11th April 1997

Copyright © 1997 Russell Brown

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there was a little story in the papers this week about a California study which found that we all tell about 200 lies a day. Journalists, I must confess, were above average in the fibbing stakes. But frankly, there's nothing to get the old pork pies flying like marijuana. Not ingesting it - just being bailed up in public about it.

If it's not mendacity, then it must be stupidity, the way the great and good have reacted since deputy treasurer Tuariki John Delamere, whose 18 year old son recently copped a dope conviction - and a quite scandalous front-page lead in the Herald - chose to speak up. Even if we strongly disapprove of pot smoking, said Delamere, is it wise to continue to try and discourage it by criminalising young people?

For a former diplomat, Delamere tends to be fairly undiplomatic, but he's gone up in my estimation. He has been honest, even again against his own best interests - which in the recent context of New Zealand First is nothing short of remarkable.

Delamere even admitted to having had a puff himself, in his younger days, as did his caucus buddies Deborah Morris and Robyn McDonald. This drew a remarkably stupid press release from Labour's police spokesman George Hawkins, in which he claimed that "most of the NZ First caucus seems to have confessed to being cannabis users."

Not only could Hawkins not count, but he couldn't count on his own caucus, as Labour's Rick Barker, Dianne Yates, Steve Maharey, and Annette King admitted, when asked, that they had dabbled in the deceptive weed. So did the Alliance's Pam Corkery - she could not do otherwise - Rod Donald, Jeanette Fitzsimons, and Laila Harre; United's Peter Dunne, and ACT's deputy leader Ken Shirley, who noted that he was the former MP for Tasman after all.

No National MPs admitted to having inhaled, but many of them will, of course, have lied. Look at them - there's a whole generation in that caucus which went to university in the 60s and 70s, when the living was easy and the buddha sticks were in circulation. Are you telling me none of them ever ventured a toke? Alright, maybe not Banks. John Banks probably didn't smoke cannabis - which is possibly all the reason anyone needs to make the stuff not only legal but compulsory.

But seriously, perhaps they knew that if they told the truth they'd be judged by an array of clowns in the press. In the Herald alone this week, a leader writer, Kate Belgrave and John Roughan have all ventured poorly-argued views. But the prize for stupidity, lazy logic and plain bigotry goes to a little gem of an editorial in the Evening Post.

"The case for decriminalisation is not convincing" intoned the Evening Post editorial. It then went on to intone that "the only good and safe reason for reducing society's penalty against those using an illegal, toxic drug would be if it was found that smoking a joint was not harmful, did not not do terrible things to your brain, did not dull the senses and slow the reactions and didn't cause the many problems the health service is dealing with." Ignoring the heroic generalisations therein, imagine that same statement with the words "drinking alcohol" instead of "smoking a joint".

Oddly enough, the editorial did not seek to examine the case for prohibition, to see whether or not that was "convincing". Indeed, none of the stuffed shifts of the daily press sought to do that. But imagine if you didn't already have a law against something that, quite soon, half of all New Zealanders will have done. You'd look at the suggestion of a law like that, and you'd say "don't be bloody mad," wouldn't you? You'd say "the police can't be running around busting people for something nearly half the population has done" and you'd say "for goodness sake, they should be trying to pursue and prevent proper crime like rape and burglary." Wouldn't you?

The writer did, however, feel able to share the information that marijuana is "toxic" and does "terrible things to your brain". Such is the piercing scientific method turned on the question of cannabis. Such is the justificat ion for nearly 20,000 convictions a year. But if he meant that marijuana does material damage to the human brain, then I'm afraid he is mistaken.

There is no reliable study which has found permanent impairment of the brain as a result of cannabis use. There just isn't. It doesn't cause chromosome damage, either. No, don't quote Tom Scott and Trevor Grice's The Great Brain Robbery at me. In the cannabis sections of that staggeringly inept book, almost every reference is lifted from one or other of the papers - they're all the same anyway, they all quote each other and they've all been thoroughly debunked by reputable researchers - of Dr Gabriel Nahas, the Godhead of the anti-pot cult.

Although the Evening Post writer had plainly not bothered to actually look up any research to support his own viewpoint, he demanded that those supporting decriminalisation fund a study into cannabis.

You want a study? Here's a good one. The Alcohol and Public Health Research Unit of the University of Auckland produced a report called Drugs in New Zealand, based on a nationwide study. It found that 43 per cent of New Zealanders between the ages 15 and 45 admitted to having used marijuana - it was several years ago, so that figure is probably higher by now. It also found that 69 per of those who had tried marijuana didn't use it any more. It listed the reasons people stopped.

And can you guess how many people stopped smoking dope because it was illegal to do so? SIX PERCENT. Actually, the study asked people whether they stopped because of fear of law or the police. And, as we know, when it comes to marijuana, respect for the law and fear of the police are two very different things. By comparison, the largest group, 25 percent, stopped because they "didn't like it".

The law does not deter. This much is evident. Ah, but but this isn't any ordinary law. As so many stuffed shirts have hastened to tell us this week, the law is some sort of transmitter - change it and you'll send the "wrong signals" to kids. Right. And those Lion Red billboards are sending the "right" signals, are they?

This "wrong signals" idea is the most pathetic intellectual cop-out of them all. What you're saying, in that case, is that the law's chief value is symbolic. Trouble is, it isn't. It isn't symbolic for the 50-odd New Zealanders A DAY who come up on marijuana offences - most of them for simple possession or consumption. It isn't symbolic at all for them. It's unpleasant, expensive and frightening.

This particular flavour of hot air comes from two different types. On the one hand, there's the never-tried-it-and-neither-should-anybody-else lot. On the other - and boy do these people piss me off - are the well-I've-had-it-a-few-times-but-I-don't-now-and-really-it-should-be-illegal -for-the-kids-sake lot. Okay, if you respect and support that law, GO AND TURN YOURSELF IN. BE HONEST. YOU SMOKED POT.

Labour list MP Dover Samuels accused Delamere of endangering Maori by calling for a review of the law. Okay, then, Dover, get on the blower and tell the cops which members of your whanau like a joint or have a few plants out back. GO ON, TURN THEM IN. Or is criminal prosecution only okay when it's somebody else's children? This is a law which not even its supporters care to see exercised over them and theirs.

The really stupid ones, of course, are the people who steadfastly declare that they don't support decriminalisation, but they don't think that young people should suffer the stigma of a criminal conviction. To which the response can only be ... duh.

Dope, of course, is bad for your health. But that doesn't mean that, as George Hawkins claimed "Health groups will be horrified by the prospect" of any lightening of the law. Oddly enough, I was told by a former health minister, no less, that public health officials have been pushing for decriminalisation for years. Why? Obvious. Get the law out of the way and run it as a health issue. It's working for tobacco, isn't it? Yet as things stand, you can't safely go to a doctor and say I'm smoking too much dope, please help me. Your only point of interface is the police, who are not going to help you get better.

It seems true that cannabis use is not a good idea for people with a predisposition to certain kinds of mental illness. But going into a casino isn't a good idea for people with a predisposition to gambling addiction, either, is it? And marijuana use hasn't increased by 25% in the past 12 months the way the net national loss on gambling has. Frankly, if we're to legislate cannabis on the basis of the most vulnerable minority, we should do the same with booze, gambling, and even, to be honest, the economy itself. We don't.

And, finally, to the kids, whose interests everyone has at heart. John Roughan wrote an incoherent opinion piece in the Herald in which he declared that although he didn't much care what adults did, the law must remain to protect schoolchildren. Pardon? Marijuana has no place in a learning environment. But we don't want kids bringing six-packs of Steinlager to school either, do we? And that's so legal we give knighthoods to people who get rich marketing it.

The perception of cannabis crisis is fostered by gravy-train groups like the Life Education Trust, the Substance Abuse Education Trust, The New Way Trust, DARE, FADE and the others. If there was no perception of crisis, those groups would not get any coporate donations and the people running them would be obliged to get jobs.

There does appear to be a particular problem in Northland - but some of the same people who applauded the Waitangi Tribunal's analysis of poverty, drift and disinfranchisement in the north ignore all that when they look at what people do with pot and why. Likewise, people who wave around the Mason Report and shout about underfunding, suddenly blame all the woes of the mental health system on marijuana. In other words, let's be clear what the real issues are.

Ironically, the head of the principals' association said he'd like to adopt the drug education programmes conducted in schools in South Australia - yes, one of those states where decriminalistion has been implemented, without the apocalypse taking place.

That's the thing. If marijuana was decriminalised, nothing would happen. The actual level of use of marijuana here appears to be unrelated to the law. In the long run, of course, you might see the gangs run out of money, and a reduction in corruption in the police force, but for a while, the courts would simply be less busy. And a huge sector of society would lose its reason to be suspiscious and fearful of the police. That, I think, counts for more than anything


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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