Hard News by Russell Brown


The problems inherent in the system

A couple of friends -- oh, okay, Ross Bell of the New Zealand Drug Foundation and Graeme Edgeler of Legal Beagle -- had a Twitter spat over the weekend over this story about an anti-legal highs campaigner's anguish over her teenage son's cannabis charge.

Now we see the problems inherent in the system, thought Ross. A "non story" being highlighted out of mere "schadenfreude", said Graeme. I think there's a way of looking at Carterton district councillor Jill Greathead's grievance that might satisfy them both.

Greathead is responding as any concerned parent might over the harm a drug conviction might do to her son's prospects. And yet she helped lead a campaign for prohibition of synthetic cannabis, which has made the possession of that an offence. Is she a hypocrite? Not necessarily.

She insisted she was not anti-police, but said the police and court process was too adversarial, and that the legal high act's amendment would put more young people in her son's shoes.

 "That's not the process to deal with [teen] addicts. We can say they're goners, we'll have ruined, we'll have destroyed human beings . . . Before you put this pressure on our children, at least [parents] should be given the opportunity of turning up."

 Convicting young people for possessing cannabis or once-legal highs could stop them travelling or getting jobs, make them anti-authority and "cut them off at the legs" before their lives had properly begun, she said.

Greathead wanted the sale of synthetic cannabis banned, but apparently doesn't want drug users like her son prosecuted. Whether she realises it or not, she is arguing for decriminalisation.

And she's in good company. The Law Commission basically agrees with her. It would be good if the Dominion Post's reporter went back to her and confirmed her stance, put it to government ministers and made a story from that. It might help join some dots.

It also bears noting that the behaviour of Wairarapa police in this instance has been disturbing. This is a 17 year-old who has admitted smoking cannabis but not been found in possession. The pot wasn't his. He went to to the police station the following day to provide information and found himself arrested and charged without his parents' knowledge. His mother says he was subsequently suicidal over what had happened.

Anyone who believes that it's appropriate to rely solely on police discretion in these cases now has a very good demonstration of why it it is not.


Ross Bell also has a column in the Dom Post today in response to one last week by Family First founder Bob McCoskrie. McCoskrie argued strongly against any change in the legal status of cannabis, citing the recent Harvard study that found "changes" in the brains of even casual cannabis users. The claims made by the authors of that study have been comprehensively debunked.

But let's not pretend there are no harms from cannabis. The question is how they can be minimised. McCoskrie champions the "Swedish model" of ultra-prohibitionism. The Swedish approach -- which sees drug offences account for about half of all the country's criminal offences -- has certainly seen far fewer Swedes admit to drug use than the citizens of any other European country. Small wonder: Swedish police can identify anyone they see as a potential drug user, force them to submit to a urine test and charge them on the basis of a positive test result.

But has it reduced harm? No. It has done the very opposite:

In 2011, Sweden had almost twice the European average of drug-related deaths, at 35.5 per million people, according to the EMCDDA. And the number has almost quadrupled since the 1990s, from 70 cases in 1995 to 272 in 2010.

In the same period, when most European countries implemented harm reduction measures – like needle exchanges to prevent the spread of HIV – drug-related deaths decreased in Spain (698 to 393), Germany (1565 to 1237) and Italy (1195 to 374).

Looked at this way, Sweden’s hardline policy is an utter disaster.

I referred McCoskrie to this report and he responded with a link to this study of a cohort of hospitalised drug users in Sweden from 1985 to 2007 (the Swedish drug crackdown began in the late 80s), under the impression it supported his argument. Its conclusion is that:

The death rate among illicit drug users was persistently high.

Why does Bob want people to die?

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