Unfortunately drinking alcohol, commonly to excess, has well and truly been ingrained in New Zealand’s society and culture.
This could be due to strong alcohol marketing and advertising which for years has plagued nearly every sports club room and bar around the country, or related to the well funded and very influential alcohol lobby groups, which clearly have a hand in the pockets of our past and current governments.
What we do know, however, is that alcohol use is taking a massive toll on our society.
A Berl study performed for the Ministry of Health and ACC in 2009 revealed that for the 2005/06 year, alcohol was estimated to have cost New Zealand $4.9 billion dollars of diverted resources and lost welfare. Of this, it is estimated that 50% of the cost would have been avoidable with public policy changes as well as behavioural changes.
Alcohol is also having a large cost on our healthcare system. Each week day, between 18% and 35% of injury-based emergency department admissions are estimated to be alcohol-related, rising to between 60% and 70% during the weekend. These intimidating statistics led Emergency Department doctor Paul Quigley to call for the legalisation of pure MDMA, which is generally understood around the world to be much safer than alcohol.
“There’s a degree of hypocrisy where we’re accepting of alcohol and the harms it causes, but the same people that literally won’t take the steps to reduce alcohol harm – like raising prices and the drinking age – are the same people who treat the idea of introducing something like MDMA as the worst thing in the world,” Quigley said.
Another intimidating statistic is that 80 per cent of the facial plastic surgeries performed in New Zealand can be directly attributed to assaults or falls under the intoxication of alcohol.
This poses a very interesting question: Is alcohol really a drug that we as a society should be endorsing and encouraging?
Above is a table which shows the percent of New Zealand Police apprehensions attributable to alcohol alone, compared to those that are attributable to other drugs. One third of all police apprehensions involve alcohol, as do half of all violent crimes committed around the country. This is grim reading considering alcohol is easily accessible, sold in all supermarkets right next to our fruit and vegetables or in bottle shops next to our local dairy. Based on the statistics, it is clear which drug is causing the most issues for Police, yet it is the drug most marketed and accessible to Kiwis.
Alcohol lobby groups for years have been behind the scenes lobbying governments ensuring no real changes are made to how alcohol is marketed, protecting their monopoly over the only real legal recreational drug. This was made evident when the 2010 Law Commission report making recommendations to restrict marketing and advertising, increase the drinking age and price, as well as limit availability went largely ignored by the National government.
Alcohol is clearly the elephant in the room regarding drug harm in New Zealand, so what about cannabis?
Most of the cost associated with cannabis isn’t connected to overall user harm, but rather costs from enforcing the prohibition. Thousands of Police and Ministry of Justice hours are wasted every year on keeping the plant illegal, all at a time when resources are desperately needed to effectively address real criminal activity which is having a detrimental effect on our communities.
Recently, stand out Kaikohe community leader and mother of three, Kelly Van Gaalen was sentenced to two years prison for possessing 684g of cannabis. Police had no evidence of dealing for profit, and the judge jailed her on the basis of supply simply because of the amount she possessed.
This seems an incredibly harsh punishment for a victim-less crime, and will have a life-long negative effect on her young children who will now spend two of their developing years without their mother.
Prison should be for murderers, rapists and thieves; not for people exercising their human right to explore different states of consciousness.
It is argued that cannabis should remain illegal because it gets abused, and that if the legality is changed, more people will abuse it.
Addressing the issue which is abuse; do criminal records or the locking of people in prison help the user end their substance abuse, or should abuse instead be treated as a healthcare issue? Which avenue will best help a substance abuser overcome their addiction?
Putting this in perspective, fast foods are also abused and have serious, sometimes deadly, negative health effects which are overlooked but nonetheless borne by society as a whole. Yet to make a Big Mac illegal because some people abuse it would be a crazy proposal.
Government and media often use the ‘gate-way drug’ theory as reasoning for keeping cannabis illegal. Not surprisingly it has been found that alcohol is actually the most common gate-way drug to harder drugs. This makes sense since alcohol intoxication has a well known detrimental effect on decision making ability, while cannabis intoxication doesn’t effect people to the same degree. How many stories have you heard of people getting so high they slept with someone undesirable, or came to after having blacked out for a period of time with no idea what occurred?
Alcohol can be deadly, while there are zero documented deaths attributed to cannabis alone worldwide.
It’s becoming more common in New Zealand to see headlines like ‘Teen drank herself to death’ while at the same time people are being imprisoned for smoking a safer alternative. Thirteen consecutive shots of alcohol (less than a full bottle of spirits) can be a lethal dose, while to overdose on cannabis you would be required to smoke an impossible 680kgs in 15 minutes; the equivalent of 680,000 joints.
While cannabis has a lot of pros, including its long list of medicinal benefits, it does also come with some downsides, such as affected brain development in young users, induced dependence, early onset of undiagnosed schizophrenia, as well as disrupting short term memory. These affects however are in relation to heavy users (an average 7 joints a day over an extended period), and wouldn’t likely affect someone who enjoys a joint or two at the end of the work week.
Campbell Live last year ran a comprehensive poll in which 84% of voters said cannabis should be decriminalised for personal use. This reflects a change of opinion as more people are waking up to how misleading the ‘reefer madness’ campaign of the seventies was. It’s time to consider that this misinformation drove the legislation we still have in place today.
Last year John Key was asked by a Kapiti College student whether medicinal cannabis should be legalised. His simple response was “drugs are bad for you”. In reference to the above graph from a Lancet published UK study, shouldn’t Key address the harm alcohol is causing by following New Zealand Law Commission recommendations if he truly is concerned about what is bad for us?
With all of this in mind, does our current legislation really reflect overall harm in New Zealand society from popular recreational drugs, or is it time to revisit our alcohol and cannabis drug laws?
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