Debate on cannabis law reform

Debate on cannabis law reform continues to crank up.

Bob McCoskrie (Family First) has been prominent in opposing liberalisation.

But that has been quickly addressed:

German Lopez (Vox): What Alex Berenson’s new book gets wrong about marijuana, psychosis, and violence

The result is the book in which that conversation is now being retold — a book that’s gotten widespread favorable coverage in CNBC, the New YorkerMother Jones, and the Marshall Project, and landed op-eds from Berenson about his findings in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

His central argument is best summarized in a few brief lines later in the book: “Marijuana causes psychosis. Psychosis causes violence. The obvious implication is that marijuana causes violence.”

I could have found this argument persuasive. I’ve become increasingly skeptical of drug legalization over the years, as I’ve reported on the opioid epidemic (caused by legal opioid painkillers), alcohol, and tobacco. I’ve written about how there are risks to marijuana that are worth taking seriously, even if one thinks that legalization is ultimately a better policy than prohibition. I’ve stopped using marijuana myself, in part because my husband had multiple experiences in which pot seemed to make his anxiety disorder flare up.

But as I read Berenson’s book, it was impossible to escape that, while a compelling read written by an experienced journalist, it is essentially an exercise in cherry-picking data and presenting correlation as causation. Observations and anecdotes, not rigorous scientific analysis, are at the core of the book’s claim that legal marijuana will cause — and, in fact, is causing — a huge rise in psychosis and violence in America.

Berenson leverages these anecdotes and limited data to argue that heavy marijuana use, spurred by the legalization of pot in several US states, is already leading to a “black tide of psychosis” and “red tide of violence.” He warns that things will only get worse as the legal pot industry grows bigger, with an incentive to stifle heavy regulations on cannabis.

In one example, he cites a recent, massive review of the evidence on marijuana’s benefits and harms from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, claiming the report, on the link between marijuana and psychosis, “declared the issue settled.”

But I read the report and wrote about it for Vox when it came out. Far from declaring this issue “settled,” the National Academies’ report was extremely careful, cautioning that marijuana’s — and marijuana addiction’s — link to psychosis “may be multidirectional and complex.” Marijuana may not cause psychosis; something else may cause both psychosis and pot use. Or the causation could go the other way: Psychotic disorders may lead to marijuana use, perhaps in an attempt to self-medicate.

Berenson’s book, with its sensationalist claims and shoddy analysis of the evidence, doesn’t genuinely address those concerns. Tell Your Childrenclaims to inform its readers of the “truth” about marijuana, but it instead repeatedly misleads them.

Russell Brown has posted Cannabis reform is a serious matter – so be serious about it

The Listener ushered in the new year with an editorial that seemed to lean heavily on Bob McCoskrie’s talking points. What factual claims the editorial makes are both ominous and vague  and it appears that the author has not made any attempt to read source research.

Part of the problem is that there’s so much epidemiological data that it’s easy to cherry-pick in service of a belief. We’re all guilty of motivated reasoning – and I don’t exclude myself. But I think anyone writing a major editorial has a duty to do more than simply copy someone else’s bullet points.

The next contribution doesn’t have that problem – because it doesn’t bother itself with facts at all. It’s by Karl du Fresne on Stuff and it is absolutely fucking execrable. Du Fresne isn’t really writing (let alone thinking) about cannabis reform so much as firing off another of his wearisome dispatches from the culture war.

He witters on, repeatedly confusing legalisation and decriminalisation and objecting to the recent medicinal cannabis bill which which “essentially legalises the use of cannabis by people with a terminal illness”, something he says a few lines later can be  ”justified on grounds of common sense or compassion”. Then:

But there should be no doubt that what we’re observing is decriminalisation by stealth, which was why the National Party withdrew its support for the medicinal cannabis bill.

It really isn’t, and it makes no more sense for du Fresne to say so than it did when Simon Bridges said it. As framed, the law offers a statutory defence for people in palliative care who possess cannabis without a prescription, as a transitional measure until the new regulations that give the bill meaning are written over the next year. It doesn’t protect anyone who sells the cannabis, or even acquires it for a dying relative. But it suits du Fresne’s conspiratorial mindset to declare otherwise.

There’s actually a straightforward and well-founded argument against handing the market to big companies (and especially publicly-held companies, which du Fresne asserts would to the best job): in order to generate profitable growth, such companies need to do two things: recruit new users, and sell hard to problem users. That’s what happens  in the liquor industry, where there’s a classic 80/20 rule and most profit comes from dependent users.

The Drug Foundation goes through this in the model drug policy it released last year, proposing regulation in favour of “small-scale community development” which would help “avoid developing a powerful industry lobby” that could influence future policy choices. I think the idea of having these enterprises distributed among, and bringing revenue into, local communities is worth looking at. It’s also likely to be important to Māori.

I did find one fan of du Fresne’s column. Former Act MP Stephen Franks declared it “sensible” and insisted that the slew of errors in the column were mere “technical” points that a columnist could hardly be expected to recognise.

A couple of days later, Franks was was back recommending a New Yorker article in which, he declared, ”Malcolm Gladwell deftly questions the woke consensus in fashionable support for cannabis legalisation”. Why, one must ask, do these guys have to turn everything into the culture war?

The short New Yorker piece consisted of Gladwell looking at a new book by former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence and saying “hey, maybe this guy’s got a point.” Similar promotional pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street JournalMother Jones and elsewhere. A sensible person could certainly be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Berenson’s dire warnings about cannabis should be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, as the headline over a frustrated piece on The Stranger put it, East Coast Media Is Grounded From Writing About Weed. The author, Lester Black, writes:

But almost as soon as journalists started jumping on Berenson’s bandwagon, the actual scientists behind the research Berenson cited distanced themselves from his book. Those scientists say he is distorting their research, mistaking correlation for causation, or he is just outright drawing incorrect conclusions.

Black also looks at the increase in homicide rates in Colorado and Washington State that Berenson repeatedly highlights. Here’s the thing. Those rates are below what pre-legalisation trends in both states suggested. Can we say that legal weed reduced the murder rate? Hell no. It’s way too complex an issue for that sort of claim. But we really can’t say that cannabis increased the number of murders.

Black isn’t the only one to take to the internet in frustration at the ready reception of Berenson’s arguments. Jesse Singal in The Intelligencernoted that Berenson’s claim that cannabis has led to higher murder rates in legal states is ”a case study in how to misleadingly use statistics to make oversimplified arguments about human behavior and public policy.”

The most detailed rebuttal I’ve seen comes from the excellent Maia Szalavitz. She cites a lot of data that don’t support various claims by Berenson, from his embrace of the “gateway hypothesis” to assumptions about cananbis potency and international trends in cannabis use and mental illness.

There are real things to focus and and talk about here. By its nature, legalisation is an experiment. But how many of the harms that can reasonably be attributed to cannabis are effectively addressed by criminalising people who use it? Is the world due a better, smarter form of legalisation than it currently has? I think we can do better. But we don’t get there via idle editorialising, blowhard culture wars or misleading use of evidence. If you’re going to declare cannabis reform a serious matter, then for god’s sake be serious about it.

More here:

No doubt this debate will continue through to the referendum (probably later next year alongside the general election).

 

Facts and factions for cannabis law reform

Two articles show how the debate over cannabis law reform is growing, with a referendum of some sort promised before or alongside the 2020 election.

Newshub: Cannabis: Where is the data? (Joel Rindelaub):

New Zealand is gearing up for a contentious cannabis conversation. Looking to temper the current NZ opinion, which – according to recent polls – is 67 percent in favour of cannabis reform, Family First’s Bob McCoskrie recently submitted a comment to the NZ Herald that condemned the marijuana movement in Colorado, comparing it to a Big Tobacco industry that doesn’t care about the health and safety of consumers.

Using statistics from a highly criticised report that Forbes Magazine has called “dishonest”, McCoskrie claimed that adolescent use has increased in Colorado, that cannabis is responsible for significant societal harm, and that “Big Marijuana” is trying to get kids addicted. Of course, none of this is true, based on the data available from credible scientific studies.

Instead, since legalisation, Colorado has seen its lowest rates of adolescent use in a decade, a reduction in deaths from opioid use, an increase in closing unsolved crimes, and – to date – nearly $1 billion in government revenue.

While Colorado’s results should be considered preliminary, they are consistent with others that have changed their stance on the substance. In addition to a decrease in drug-related homicides, the implementation of progressive marijuana laws in the State of Washington has coincided with a reduction in sexual assault and property crimes as well as a decrease in the abuse of other substances, such as alcohol.

Supporters of the substance also turn to its medical applications, including its use to alleviate symptoms of chemotherapy, reduce seizures in epilepsy patients, and its potential as a safer, less addictive pain reliever. In fact, the World Health Organisation has called for a component of cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD), to be removed from internationally controlled substance lists, due to its lack of harm and potential therapeutic benefits.

This news has fuelled cannabis activists, who claim that legalisation will allow police to shift focus onto violent offences, ease the burden on the prison systems, reduce organised crime, lead to better drug education, and provide less societal dependence on dangerous opioid painkillers.

The cannabis activists Flying the flag for cannabis law reform (Russell Brown):

A referendum on legalising cannabis will take place either next year or in 2020. The crucial details – the timing of the referendum, the nature of the process and the question voters will be asked – will be announced by the responsible minister, Andrew Little, before Christmas. But already, the government’s decision to do something no nation has before – put the question of whether to reform drug laws directly to its voters – is changing the face of cannabis advocacy.

Last month, the bland conference level of the James Cook hotel in Wellington was host to something different to the corporate away-days that are its usual fare: a cannabis conference. Or, more specifically, a conference about New Zealand’s coming cannabis referendum.

The event was a bid by the Cannabis Referendum Coalition (CRC) – a new group of old campaigners – to move beyond the loose and sometimes fractious history of cannabis advocacy and present a coherent, even respectable, face.

It largely succeeded.

Ironically, the CRC and its veteran activists look in some ways like a conservative party in the referendum debate. Over the day of the conference, it became clear that there was a strong mood on the floor for a non-profit-at-retail model, something like Spain’s cannabis social clubs, rather than a commercial one. And the final conference resolutions called for a two-part question: the first part asking whether possession and use should be legalised, and the second on allowing regulated sale.

But if the legalise cannabis advocates now have their ducks in a row, who and what will constitute a “no” campaign? Murray suggests that gangs who fear the loss of black-market cannabis income could weigh in against legalisation. Right now, however, the obvious opposition consists of one man, Family First’s Bob McCoskrie, known for opposing euthanasia, abortion and smacking law reform.

McCoskrie has been churning out press statements that seem to draw heavily from US religious conservative groups. In an opinion piece published by the New Zealand Herald last week – almost identical to one published two weeks before by Stuff – he focused on the risk of ‘Big Marijuana’, high potency cannabis, and the appeal of the drug to children.

Ironically, the reformers aren’t at all keen on Big Cannabis either. Neither proponents or opponents of change see an excess of capitalism as desirable.

There is likely to be a growing debate over cannabis law reform next year. This will be helped when a timetable for the referendum is known.

 

English dumps on cannabis proposals

Last week Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne suggested that the poorly working laws on cannabis need to be changed.

Stuff: Peter Dunne says ‘Class C’ drugs like cannabis should be made legal and regulated

Our current law isn’t stopping New Zealanders from using drugs.

This year’s Global Drug Survey quizzed 3795 Kiwis about their drug habits. Of them, 70.8 per cent said they’d used illegal drugs in the past, with 42.7 per cent using them in the past 12 months, and 13.6 per cent in the last month.

For some time now, Dunne’s been talking up the merits of Portugal’s drug laws, where every drug is decriminalised – albeit with a caveat: If you’re caught with less than 10 days of any drug – cannabis, heroin, methamphetamine, or anything in between – you won’t be prosecuted. Instead, you’ll be fined or sent to treatment.

While some dump on Dunne whenever he mentions cannabis he has been doing more than any other politician in trying to fix drug laws that are clearly failing.

The main impediment has been the dominant National Party position on cannabis.

Rather than creating a free-for-all, Portugal saw its people’s drug use slump: in the 1990s, one in every 100 people in Portugal was addicted to heroin; since then, overall drug use has dropped 75 per cent.

Dunne wants to see that replicated in New Zealand.

“I think the full Portuguese solution, personally, might be the way for us to go long term. That might be where we head,” he says.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily where it ends, because you still have the problem – particularly in New Zealand – of the production and distribution being by the gangs, which is illegal, and all that sort of conflict.”

This is supported by experts.

Medical anthropologist Geoff Noller explains why Portugal’s model works: “I think it removes the sexy factor, because [drugs become] just another thing, and it allows people to be educated about it”.

“Because it’s not illegal anymore, we can actually talk about it. It’s very hard to have rational, truthful education and information about safe use [when] you can’t. If you remove it from this big shadow of evilness, then you can actually start talking about it.”

While a “complete rewrite” of the Misuse of Drugs Act is expected over the next three years, it’s not clear whether that kind of shake-up would feature – although the Drug Foundation would hope so.

“The sky doesn’t fall in when you do a Portugal-style reform,” executive director Ross Bell says.

“Decriminalise all drugs, stop it from being a law enforcement issue, make it a health issue and invest in health. We should be able to do this by 2020.”

But not by all experts.

However, Otago University psychiatry lecturer Dr Giles Newton-Howes is on the fence.

He says the idea of being rehabilitative instead of punitive “makes a lot of sense”, but he’d want to see more evidence of the treatment outcomes before signing New Zealand up.

“I would be cautiously interested in seeing how that Portugal experiment evolves. I wouldn’t want New Zealand to be running down that road yet, because there are lots of drugs which are really not very safe, especially for the developing brain.

“I’m not convinced that that’s a safe road for us to be going down just yet, but I do think it’s something we should be keeping a really close eye on.”

But New Zealand is lagging other countries in addressing a failing ‘war on drugs’, especially drugs causing less harm than alcohol.

Cannabis lobby group Norml welcomes the idea of putting the drug under Psychoactive Substances Act: in fact, it came up with it.

“When we were making our views known when the law was being drafted, that was always our objective, to have it so natural cannabis and other low-risk drugs can go through there too,” Norml president Chris Fowlie says.

While he says “any form of law reform” would be better than the current law, Norml would prefer legalisation to decriminalisation.

Bell agrees Dunne’s plan for cannabis “has a whole lot of merit”.

“The classification of low-risk drugs like cannabis, with a real strong public health focus, I think, is an inevitability.”

Newshub: Expert backs MP’s call for rewrite of drug laws

A drug expert is urging the Government to seriously consider an MP’s case for legalising Class C drugs.

United Future Leader Peter Dunne wants drugs like cannabis to be legalised, saying this might actually help cut down the nation’s use.

“The test is evidence based around the risk posed to the user… there are clear controls on the manufacture, sale and distribution of any such products that might be approved.”

Associate Professor Chris Wilkins of Massey University says it might not be a bad idea.

“I think New Zealand needs to start having a serious discussion and develop some evidence and get some expert opinion about where we should be heading, rather than just taking a kneejerk reaction that might come out of an election or a particular politician’s approach.”

Prof Wilkins says he’s been working on a draft regulatory model that will be released in the next week.

“It’s important that some of the money from the cannabis industry gets earmarked for drug treatment, for drug prevention. The model we’ve been working on goes down that route.”

Other countries are looking at reform.

New Zealand wouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel either, with several other countries years ahead in decriminalisation.

“Eight states in the US have legalised the supply and use of cannabis. Canada will legalise use and supply this year. There are a lot of innovative approaches out there, so I think it’s something definitely we could discuss and debate.”

But, while some younger National MPs support drug law reform, the current Government under Bill English is digging it’s toes in, and keeping it’s head in the sand.

From @TheAMShowNZ

Bill English says they don’t support Peter Dunne’s idea for licensed manufacturers to test and sell class C drugs like marijuana.

“we don’t want to create more damage”

It’s hard to see how more damage can be created by the current mess of law and police practice.

So the prospects of drug law reform in New Zealand don’t look good. Even if National loose the election Labour have said “it is not a priority” meaning they don’t want to propose anything that could be controversial or contentious (that approach has failed them so far).

Unless something can be negotiated as part of a coalition arrangement.

Dunne may not be an MP after the election. If he survives his one vote is unlikely to hold much power.

ACT don’t look like having more than one voter either at this stage.

The Maori Party have said they would consider drug law changes but I doubt they would make it a part of any coalition agreement.

The Greens are possibly the only party that are likely to have enough votes and enough sway to force the issue – if they are willing to back many years of supposed support for drug law reform.

Misuse of drugs is a major factor in ‘poverty’ and imprisonment problems, things the Greens think need addressing.

That’s for sure.

Morgan message on J Day

The annual J Day was held on Saturday.

Norml: J Day this Saturday 6 May, nationwide cannabis law reform events

J Day is a worldwide protest against prohibition and a celebration of Kiwi cannabis culture, held on the first Saturday in May every year. This Saturday is the 26th Annual national day of action supporting cannabis law reform, including safe legal access to medicinal cannabis.

To mark the occasion NORML and our cannabis law reform colleagues organise free events nationwide. J Day is where supporters of cannabis law reform can meet like minded people, relax without fear, learn how they can help make cannabis legal, join their local group and meet other cannabis advocates.

“With an election soon it is important people show their support,” said J Day’s national coordinator Chris Fowlie, of Auckland. “For the first time there are multiple parties contesting the election who advocate for cannabis law reform. The Greens have been joined by Labour and the Maori Party, as well as ACT, TOP and the Cannabis Party. Even United Future is on the side of reform!”

“We agree cannabis should be a health issue, not a crime, and there are too many cannabis users to arrest.”

Gareth Morgan of TOP (The Opportunities Party) has given a message to mark the occasion:

Sorry I can’t be with you on J Day, which is a bit of a shame because it’s very significant one this year for us.

We are about to produce a policy on cannabis law reform.

We have looked at the issues around this subject and the big one is harm.

We have to minimise harm and it’s pretty clear from all the evidence that, particularly internationally, that prohibition is not the way to go if you want to minimise harm from use of this drug. be produced and under what restrictions, what pricing, all that sort of stuff.

Pretty exciting times and I look forward to being back with you in a couple of weeks when we do produce this policy and I think you will find that it’s both exciting and a big step forward in terms of minimising the harm of cannabis. All the best.

There is growing pressure on Parliament and on parties to address the problems caused by current laws and current application of laws on cannabis.

Morgan and TOP will help to promote that pressure.

Cross blog support for cannabis law reform?

David Farrar has a post at Kiwiblog showing a marked shift in the US towards cannabis law reform – US views on cannabis legalisation.

NZ Herald reported in June: Poll shows opinion shift on cannabis

A poll shows most people want smoking cannabis to be decriminalised or made legal.

The latest Herald-DigiPoll survey shows just under a third of those polled thought smoking cannabis should attract a fine but not a criminal conviction, while a fifth went further and said it should be legalised.

Forty-five per cent said it should remain illegal, and 2.6 per cent said they did not know.

And in August: Fast Fire on Cannabis: Who’s for legalisation?

A new survey shows that an emphatic majority of voters want to partially or fully legalise cannabis, but there is little appetite for change among most political parties.

In the latest Herald-Digipoll, almost 80 per cent of those polled wanted cannabis to be at least partially legalised; 63 per cent wanted it legal for medicinal use, while 16 per cent wanted it completely legal.

Almost one in five – 19 per cent – wanted cannabis to remain illegal, which it currently is.

In the Herald’s Fast Fire series about decriminalisation of cannabis, most leaders were against it.

It’s a pity then that apart from the Greens who seem lukewarm on actually changing anything most of the rest of the parties seem cold on addressing cannabis law reform in New Zealand.Current law is not working well but it doesn’t look like anything will be done about it. Parliament moved with international trends on marriage law reform but are backwards on this,

There are genuine concerns about the harms involved with cannabis use but there’s an unwillingness to deal with the harms done by our law policing as they are.

I think there’s quite strong support for reform across the blogging world, perhaps this is a good candidate for joint non-partisan social media pressure to encourage our elected representatives to represent us on this.

Farrar is pro-reform, and I know Cameron Slater (Whale Oil) and Russell Brown (Public Address) have been as well. There’s some support at The Standard but I’m not sure how much there would be across the authors. Same for The Daily Blog.

What about other bloggers? Who would support a cross-blog campaign?

Booze – our problems need our solutions

The Dominion Post has an editorial on alcohol law reform.

Bill won’t change our booze culture

The Alcohol Reform Bill is a tiny step towards addressing New Zealand’s binge-drinking problem. It will not end the disturbing attitude too many Kiwis have towards booze.

And they close with:

The reality is that while politicians can determine the law on where, when and by whom alcohol can be legally purchased and consumed, they cannot influence the most important issue – how. What is needed for that to occur is a culture change, something no legislation can provide.

I think they’re right.

We have a booze problem. Too many parts of our society, often our friends and family, have a booze problem. And we don’t do enough to address it.

Waiting for politicians to fix all our problems will fix little or nothing.

A culture change requires people within that culture to change, and to speak up for change.

 

Cannabis deserves a decent debate

Don Brash has raised the decriminalisation of cannabis as an election issue, but it’s far more complex, and more important, than to rush policy in the heat of a campaign. Various issues around cannabis use – social, legal and medical – deserve decent public exposure and debate.

It would be a mistake to simply decriminalise cannabis and hope that the change will make things better. If the inevitable problems turn out to be greater than any benefits of giving people more free choice on use of drugs it would be difficult to undo.

The Act Party is deeply divided over Brash’s thoughts. The Green Party gives low-key support to relaxing drug laws. The rest of parliament does not support decriminalisation of cannabis and has no plans to change the status quo. The best way to test if this is the best stance or not is to examine it with informed debate.

There’s much more to the cannabis issue than giving a few recreational users the legal right to smoke as they please.

Kate K, who has just published a book called “Matters To A Head: Cannabis, mental illness & recovery” suggests on Dim-Post that “the decriminalisation argument is far less important to NZ than the real issue of providing and resourcing appropriate treatment and services to those who become unstuck by the drug.”

Russell Brown agrees and asks “this is actually the debate we should be having: how do we prevent early use of cannabis?”

Young people are much more susceptible to the adverse effects of drug use – it is unlikely there would be widespread support for unlimited use of cannabis for all ages. We need a process were we can debate and decide as a society what we want, and put that to the politicians.

I’m going to initiate more debate on cannabis. There are too many distractions for the rest of the year, so I propose planning this for next March, once the University year has restarted. In the meantime I will find what organisations and interest groups want to contribute information and want to participate in debate.

I will promote this debate on two levels, online and based publicly in Dunedin:

  • publish an initial discussion document
  • public meeting involving any interested legal, medical and social inputs, and local and national politicians
  • debate in local media
  • a possible organised public debate
  • utilise online media extensively for discussion and debate – this can extend nationally
  • close the debate period with a public meeting
  • poll or referendum on what the people of Dunedin prefer to be done, if anything

Other regions would be welcome to link in with this process.

Politicians will be involved as much as possible with the results. Ultinmately any action will be up to parliament, but this will provide a good indication of public preferences.

This will be a good test for establishing better ongoing community involvement in the social/political process.

Notes:

I am the UnitedFuture candidate for Dunedin North. These plans for cannabis debate will proceed regardless of the outcome in the electorate or via the list.

Current UnitedFuture policy includes “Oppose the decriminalisation of cannabis for recreational use.”

UnitedFuture party leader Peter Dunne has “no problem at all” with this debate proposal – the party encourages debate on issues as is open to alternate opinions.

My personal position is to support the status quo unless good evidence and informed public opinion supports change. I have never smoked cannabis, but I have inhaled party bong pong.

I don’t have a strong stance either way, I’m interested in helping determine what people want and supporting the popular view.

If anyone wants to join the planning of this debate please contact me at petedgeorge@gmail.com