Why we need to end the stigma against drugs

We have pretty much two ways of talking about drugs. On the one hand, we talk about drug abuse as a mental health issue. Those suffering from it require compassion and medical support. On the other hand, we talk about ‘junkies’ and consider all drug users ‘scum’. Assumptions, not necessarily true, are made about “people like that.”

The first line of argument prioritizes compassion and a generous belief in people; the second judgment and a pessimistic belief in peoples’ worst. The first looks to reintegrate troubled people into our community. The second looks to wall itself off from them.

Ask yourself: if it was someone you loved with a problem, which discourse would be more helpful?

When it comes to cannabis users, assumptions abound: lazy, irresponsible, stupid, unmotivated. However, cannabis users are like any other interest group in society: made up of a broad range of people, most of them normal, responsible folk.

And this stigma plays a big part in why you don’t see them. Not wanting to be stigmatized (and let’s not forget criminalized!) this majority keep themselves to themselves. As Abe Gray, founder of the Whakamana Cannabis Museum in Dunedin says, “The people who aren’t having any problems – we never hear about them… And they would never ever want us to hear about them, because they don’t want to be stigmatised.”

Most cannabis users are just like you. They have kids, jobs, debt, parents. They like the outdoors, music, good food, and fixing up their homes. They have good days, and they have bad days. They walk among us and we don’t even know. Because they don’t fit the stereotype.

What if a new way of talking about cannabis, and drugs in general, came about? One where we take all the moralizing out and just accept the idea of drug use as a risky activity as we do sky diving or motor sport or skiing? Drug users aren’t bad people; they are risk takers.  Drugs aren’t good or bad; there are just good or bad ways of using them.  When people hit hard times, they don’t deserve judgment, they deserve compassion. If we removed that stigma, what might happen?

Well, the host of negative effects that come from the stigma attached to cannabis and other illegal drugs might start to fall away.

The people with a problem, who’ve been deterred from getting help, might be able to open up to loved ones, knowing they no longer holding stigmatizing assumptions about ‘druggies’.  They would know that they could go to a doctor or a nurse and be unafraid of being judged, as research shows they are so often now.

The people devalued, marginalised on the fringe of society, may start to be able to come back inside.  The assumption that drug addicts just don’t care would be challenged and understood in its complexity: society plays a part in this because it hasn’t cared for them. As this changed and addicts’ care for society grew, associated anti-social behaviour would lessen.

The social stigma attached to drug use that turns into ‘self stigma’ – society’s negative assumptions internalised, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy – would abate. Tell drug users they’re scum, don’t be surprised when some decide they’re scum. Bring on more anti-social behaviour.  However, tell drug addicts that ‘Yes, you’re in a bad place now, but that doesn’t mean you’re bad, and this can change,’ and you offer people hope.

Finally, the effect that stigma has on the physical and mental health of drug users would be lessened.  Research in the US has shown that stigma towards drug users can have an effect on their physical and mental health. Similar research has reached the same conclusions about the effect of prejudice against ethnic minorities. Those who feel more highly stigmatized have worse health issues. The paper concludes there is a “need for debate on the relative risks and benefits of stigma and discrimination in this context.”

It can be argued that the stigma towards drug users acts as a deterrent to using. Usage rates for alcohol compared to cannabis, the most commonly used illicit drug, back that. However, if drugs are a potentially harmful, addictive activity, why can’t we just let that stand on its own as a deterrent? Just as the high crash rate stands on its own as a deterrent to owning a motorcycle.  Why do we have to demonize a group of people with a lie that says they’re all useless no-hopers? Why can’t we just let knowledge and education stand on its own?  And if people get in a bad place, help them out, as we do with all other risk takers.

Because the backlash from stigma is a number of users see through the assumptions, and see that ‘Hey, not all drug users are bad people’ and that most people use marijuana with no problems. They get the idea that all of it is lies and become cynical and marginalised in a whole different way. Distrust of police and authority follows and they refrain from getting fully involved in their community because their community, unfortunately, thinks they’re a bad person.

Consider again if it was someone you loved with a problem.  Let’s find new ways to talk about drugs and end the stigma associated with them and drug users.

Please feel free to comment below.




Aotearoa Cannabis Party leader throws it in with The Opportunities Party. You should too!

The big cannabis news right here in lil ol’ NZ just keeps rolling in.  And I haven’t even got to Julie Anne Genter’s medicinal bill being pulled for debate yet!

About a week ago, Abe Grey, the current president for the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party defected to Gareth Morgan’s The Opportunities Party in an open letter on Facebook.  He said on Radio NZ, that “of all the parties who are posturing themselves now, The Opportunities Party is the only one that has a real, deliberate, well thought out policy, and one that’s backed by evidence… And it has basically eclipsed the Cannabis Party and there is no reason why I wouldn’t want to support TOP over them.”

I applaud Abe for a gutsy move that couldn’t have been easy.  Perhaps within the Cannabis Party there will be those who feel he has abandoned or betrayed them, but the majority of feedback on Facebook has been positive, and as Mr Grey said, “I think thoughtful people will hear what I have to say and hopefully follow suit.”  It makes sense for cannabis advocates to back TOP who have the resources, profile and the policy to make a real difference, where the Cannabis Party never could.

So what about The Opportunities Party’s cannabis policy then?  Well, it looks pretty bloody good. TOP would legalise and regulate cannabis as the evidence they have gathered shows this “will more accurately reflect the internationally recognised intention of drug policy – to reduce harm.”  The 10 page policy document takes in evidence from New Zealand sources, as well as Portugal, Canada, and the U.S. states that have legalised. It is fairly comprehensive – there is little in it that I find wanting. As Mr Grey said in his letter, “The fact that TOP arrived at this exact policy through an evidence based process and without the input of the pro-cannabis lobby only further vindicates law reform advocates and speaks volumes for the robustness of TOP’s evidence based policy approach.”

In fact, in the area of how regulated sales would work – something that is an important issue to me because I don’t want to see regulated cannabis become the next alcohol industry – the TOP policy follows a line of thinking that I have held for awhile. That is sales through a licensed trust, similar to alcohol licensing trusts.  This is very pleasing to see as it signals the policy is really grounded in public health, unlike the American models, which while good in that they remove criminal sanctions for cannabis, have created a commercial model that will always be hungry for expansion and profits off of heavy users.

TOP’s policy: “These charities would establish their own retail outlets and would be tasked with minimising the health impacts of cannabis use.  They would reinvest any profits into local drug education and mental health services, as well as after-school recreation for teenagers that are focussed on reducing drug use (as per the Iceland model).”

If you haven’t read about how Iceland has reduced teen drug, tobacco, and alcohol use, it’s worth a look.

They also look at the issue of purity, something regularly overlooked by people keen on the status quo.  Cannabis sold illicitly can be grown with any number of pesticides that should not be used on a product that will be smoked.  They can become infected with mould and fungi, particularly in the drying process.  Drug policy’s key goal of harm minimisation is completely undermined in this respect by prohibition. Colorado has lead the way in ensuring that the smoke people are inhaling is as pure as possible (well, as pure as any smoke can be!).

To protect young developing brains (research suggests cannabis can be particularly harmful to these), TOP would set the minimum age for purchase at 20 years old.  I can see the sense in this.  Lowering the alcohol age limit to 18 did increase alcohol-related harm for youth.  Yet, at the same time, the ‘fairness’ part of me says that if you can vote and go to war at 18, surely you should be considered responsible enough to drink a beer or smoke a joint.  It’s a toughie, that one.

Typically, my party vote would go Green, even though, like Abe, I have been pretty disappointed in the limited attention they have given to cannabis policy over the last decade.  However, I am currently thinking, also like Abe, that my party vote is going to go to TOP this time.  Have a look at their policies and see whether you think yours should too.

The Problem with Discretion

Last week’s change to allow CBD products to be prescribed by doctors continued to shake the media over the weekend.  This article from Stuff.co.nz upped the rhetoric by focusing on Rose Renton, and her son, Alex, who was prescribed a cannabidiol extraction late in his illness but unfortunately passed away soon after.  Renton believes earlier use of the CBD may have extended his life.

The article moves on to Peter Dunne’s take on how the law is working for medicinal cannabis users:

“Dunne doesn’t want to see terminally ill users prosecuted for using illegal cannabis, and believes the law “works in the main”.

Police, he says, “effectively turn a blind eye” to low levels of cannabis possession.

“The problem is, every now and then you get a cop out in the regions who decides ‘I’m going to enforce the law as it stands’.”

Now, when he says the ‘turn a blind eye’ I believe he is applying that to all cannabis possession, not just medicinal.  His comments are a real backhander though. They basically say, ‘Well, you’ll probably get off, unless you’re an unlucky bugger.’  The law shouldn’t be based on luck. This discretion, while good in that less people are being charged with possession, creates injustice and the contempt for police and laws that comes with that, and is thus one of the biggest problems around current cannabis laws.

Although police deny it, with a spokesperson saying, “The role of police is to enforce the law and the police approach to cannabis has not changed,” it is well-known that police do not charge in all instances related to cannabis and for the last several years they have also had what is known as the pre-charge warning in their tool belt.  From the NZ Police website:

“A Pre-Charge Warning (PCW) is a formal warning given after arrest for a comparatively minor offence. This differs from traditional, more informal warnings given in the field, where the offender is not arrested; and the more formal Adult Diversion process, which is an outcome of prosecution following a court hearing. PCWs reduce the burden on Courts and the justice system by reducing the volume of prosecutions for less serious offences. The initiative particularly targets crimes often committed by offenders who are intoxicated, and many of whom have not previously offended. The lengthy and costly process for prosecuting these people can be seen as disproportionate to the circumstances, especially if it results in a conviction with implications for the individual’s future (e.g., with respect to employment or international travel). For Police, PCWs lead to less time spent on minor offending, freeing staff up to investigate more serious offences and undertake preventative work.

Since their introduction in 2010, PCWs have resulted in approximately 37,000 hours of Police time being freed up. This is the equivalent of an additional 24 full-time officers undertaking preventative activities, such as bail checks following up court warrants, and assisting in drug and organised crime-related operations.”

You may have noticed that the pre-charge warning system achieves many of the same things that a change in cannabis laws will do: reduce disproportionate outcomes for people’s futures, reduce burden on the courts, reduce police paperwork and so result in more productive police use of time and costs.

So, it’s a good thing, right?  Wrong.  The discretion that it invites is a gaping hole just waiting for injustice to jump right through it.  As Kim Workman of Rethinking Crime and Punishment says in this article on pre-charge warnings from the Drug Foundation, “I fail to see the difference between one person being warned for possession and another being charged.”

As the articles goes on to state: “A Police officer’s discretion is a double-edged sword. Police will use their discretion not to prosecute if the offender is regarded as low risk, but that carries socioeconomic and ethnic undertones.”  So, if you’re down or you’re brown, get out of town, pretty much.  Seems luck has a lot to do with pre-determined factors.

According to the Drug Foundation article, the Police were aware of this potential for racial bias right from the beginning – what Police Commissioner Mike Bush calls ‘unconscious bias’ – what has also been labelled ‘racism without racists’.  Six months in to the pre-charge warning system, it was already noticeable and four years later it is still present.  Maori are less likely to receive pre-charge warnings than non-Maori.  From an article on the justice system’s institutional racism at stuff.co.nz:

From 2010-2014, police and justice figures show Maori made up 51 per cent of prison sentences, 40 per cent of prosecutions and convictions.

And yet, over the same period, Maori made up only 30 per cent of those who received pre-charge warnings – in other words, were let off – compared to 57 per cent of Pakeha.

Two people are found with a gram of weed on them: one is Pakeha, the other is Maori.  Because the Maori guy has a previous conviction (this is one of the conditions related to the application of the pre-charge warning, and one reason Maori more commonly don’t receive it – they are more likely to have a conviction), he’s dragged in front of the court while the young Pakeha fella walks free. The injustice of this both causes and perpetuates a huge degree of contempt for our police, our courts and our laws.   As does cannabis prohibition generally.

Discretion is an important and necessary part of policing and the court system.  Not all situations are the same, nor can they all be greeted with the same reaction.  However, discretion when it comes to what is unfortunately still such a ‘moral’ issue as drugs leads to the kind of situation Peter Dunne described where we “get a cop out in the regions who decides ‘I’m going to enforce the law as it stands'” (this is far from just an ‘in the regions’ thing though, I think!)  This is not like police using discretion when it comes to giving a speeding ticket – that instance of discretion might cost you $150 or so.  Discretion on a cannabis charge could be enough to make you lose your job.  It could ruin future opportunities for work and travel.

Whether one person gets lippy with a cop, whether they have a previous conviction, whether the possibility of a criminal record can be leveraged against them, these should not be considerations when it comes to charging someone with a crime.

There are huge costs inherent in cannabis prohibition already – the poor usage of police and court time, the serious disruption to people’s lives, and the contempt it creates amongst a part of society who probably most need to trust the police. Discretion only adds to these. It is time that both were dealt to by sensible cannabis laws that regulate its use, whether medicinal or recreational.








Breaking news! Cannabis!

Imagine my surprise yesterday when I opened my browser and found red banners at the top of news sites saying ‘BREAKING NEWS: Dunne allows doctors to prescribe medicinal cannabis.’  You’re having a big first week here on Cannabis News Central, Mr Dunne!

That’s right.  Well, partially right.  Yesterday, on advice from the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs (EACD) and with approval from cabinet (nearly wrote ‘approval from cannabis’ by mistake) Mr Dunne removed CBD from the list of controlled substances.

This is not a change to medicinal cannabis wholesale as some news publications somewhat misleadingly stated.  I think when people hear medicinal cannabis they think of the plant and nothing has changed here.  Patients, or anyone on their behalf, will not be able to grow their own cannabis and prepare their own cannabis-based medications.  Thankfully now it appears most have re-jigged their headlines to read ‘cannabis-based products’ or ‘cannabis oil’ or even ‘cannabidiol’.

The headlines are a problem because they mislead the public into thinking National have solved this issue.  Yes, this change is a good step forward but it is still far from the comprehensive and compassionate system medical users need and other countries have, as Green Party MP Julie Ann Genter recognises.  “It’s good seeing policy change that will help some of the people who are currently suffering, but the high cost of importing these medicinal products continues to be a barrier,” says health spokeswoman Julie Anne Genter.

Products with THC in them are still controlled substances and will require approval from the Ministry of Health.  That will presumably include Sativex, currently the most prescribed, cannabis-based medicine.  As medicinal cannabis campaigner Rose Renton says, CBD is “only half the plant.”  THC itself has been proven to have a range of medical applications, related to pain relief, appetite stimulation, and nausea relief.  On top of this, what is known as the ‘entourage effect’ – the positive effects that result from the full range of cannabinoids working together – is receiving increasing study.

Until a proper regulated system is in place where people can grow their own cannabis and access a range of medicinal products easily, there will be a large number of medicinal users who will continue to have to access the black market.  This move is a step in the right direction though and for that Peter Dunne deserves a pat on the back.

“Smithers, bring out the hounds!”

One of the biggest issues surrounding cannabis and any changes to the law governing it is that of driving under the influence.  It is often cited as a reason against changing the law, but people seem to conveniently forget that prohibition does little to stop this.  People are already driving around under the influence of cannabis.

The Cannabist, the site the award-winning Denver Post set up after legalisation in Colorado, recently reported on a start up called Hound Labs who have created a marijuana breathalyzer.  This is a new way of testing for cannabis use by drivers, which is usually detected by either saliva or a field sobriety test.  The article states:

“Technology already exists to test for THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — in users’ blood, saliva and urine. But the chemical can remain in those bodily fluids for days or weeks after smoking or ingesting marijuana, meaning a user risks being wrongfully accused of DUI even if he or she is no longer under the influence of the drug.”

Therein, lies the rub. Current testing regimes can and do provide false positives – people who have cannabis in their bloodstream but who are not impaired.  Colorado, for example has set the legal limit for THC at 5ng (nanograms) per litre of blood. Problem is, a regular smoker can always have this amount of THC in the blood, regardless of whether they have smoked in the last few hours or not.  This article by the Associated Press provides a good overview of the issues.

“There is understandably a strong desire by both lawmakers and the public to create legal limits for marijuana impairment in the same manner we do alcohol,” said Marshall Doney, AAA’s president and CEO. “In the case of marijuana, this approach is flawed and not supported by scientific research.”

New Zealand police still currently use field sobriety tests as their major way of detecting cannabis impairment.   However, this is set to change with the introduction of saliva testing.  These saliva tests can detect cannabis up to 12 hours after use, long after any impairment has dissipated, and have been challenged successfully in court.  And this article from The Canberra Times about a motorcyclist being wrongfully charged for drug driving after a crash is a good example of the negative externalities that drug prohibition can cause.

Hound Labs breathalyzer model may be the answer.  They claim that it can detect cannabis, whether smoked or ingested, on the breath, for just a few hours after use.  This could help put an end to the situation where people are arrested on drug driving charges not for being impaired but for simply having cannabis in their system. As one of their investors states:

“Groundbreaking science is necessary to make an accurate measurement of recently used cannabis, and Hound Labs is uniquely positioned to deliver a solution to the market that respects the needs of the enforcement community as well as the rights of legitimate cannabis users.”

‘Legitimate’ in this case being California, the world’s sixth largest economy, which legalised cannabis at the otherwise unfortunate 2016 U.S. election.

Prohibiting cannabis has helped create this situation.  Being illegal, legitimate research into how to test its level of impairment has been nearly completely stymied, and that has created a flawed method of testing that creates unfairness and has left countries like New Zealand unsafe.  We see this problem with research in the medicinal use of cannabis and in understanding its negative health impacts also.  It is only now that legalisation is spreading that companies are really able to work on technologies that accurately measure THC levels.

Peter Dunne puts it out there

Does Peter Dunne want to see a change of government?  He’s certainly been pushing a policy lately that his boss, Bill English wants no part of.

A week ago, Dunne put out a press release in his role as leader of United Future where he suggests a two step system: first, decriminalising Class C drugs and then second, regulating them under the recent Psychoactive Substances Act that was brought in to control the burgeoning ‘legal highs’ industry (born, in part, out of the illegality of cannabis).

NORML, the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, supports this approach.  However, I am wary as what have we actually seen regulated and introduced to market via that Act so far?  It has been bogged down in issues over animal testing and seems more like prohibition by another name than anything else.  Am I wrong on this?

The press release was followed up by a flurry of news reports over the last couple of days.  Dunne points to the success that Portugal has had lowering its drug use rates after decriminalising possession of all drugs in 2001.

Duncan Garner glibly states that Peter Dunne has been in Parliament 30 years and “he needs about another 30 to get this through.”  Well yes, cannabis advocates have learned not to get their hopes up too much, but, both in NZ and worldwide, the issue has never been as hot as it is right now.

Nearly all the minor parties – Greens, Maori Party, United Future, TOP – support a change from the status quo.  Labour is wavering, but in power and with coalition partners pushing it, reform would become likely, I think.

More and more, the public understand that change is needed.  Maybe this issue will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?