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A terrible role model for legal cannabis

The current laws on alcohol provide no precedent for how we should regulate cannabis, argues Pat Baskett. Rather, they exemplify some of the pitfalls - particularly the commercialisation that has put government at the industry’s beck and call.

As we begin to think about the legalisation, or not, of cannabis, a shining example of how not to proceed sits before our eyes every day. Alcohol has so few restrictions on its availability that there might as well be none.

The alcohol story defies much of the logic that motivates the anti-legalisation of cannabis camp. And how we’ve dealt with tobacco highlights the inconsistencies and contradictions.

Alcohol has been demonstrated to have the harm equivalent of a Class B drug, in the same category as the illegal substances morphine, “ecstasy” and d-amphetamine.

Cannabis rates at the lower level of Class C. We know now that cannabis has long-term harmful effects on the brains of teenagers, that it can impair driving ability and that it is said to play a role in preventing glaucoma.

But the list of alcohol’s harms don’t bear thinking about. The World Health Organisation classifies it as a Group 1 carcinogen which means that, like tobacco, there is conclusive evidence about its potency. It’s not just cirrhosis of the liver. Our three most common cancers – breast, prostate and bowel – are linked directly with alcohol use.

The question is, of course, how much does it take and whether we know that answer. For breast cancer, some studies have shown that women who have three drinks a week have a 15 percent higher risk. This is because alcohol can increase levels of estrogen and also damage DNA in cells.

Sensible pregnant women don’t touch a drop because of possible effects on the foetus. Those who can’t help themselves risk giving birth to one of the estimated 1800 babies born each year with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). This term describes the range of physical, cognitive, behavioural and neuro-developmental disabilities that can result from the alcohol absorbed by the baby in the womb.

The terrible thing about FASD is that the effects don’t go away as the baby grows up. This means, according to Ministry of Health estimations, that there could be 30,000 children and young people with FASD and that the costs to the country are “at least $450 million. On top of that”, says the Ministry’s website, “estimates of productivity loss due to morbidity and premature mortality from FASD range from $49 million to $200 million per year”.

Lobbyists successfully used the health risks of nicotine to raise the price of cigarettes and restrict where people can smoke. Each cigarette, they claim, reduces the life of the average smoker by 12 minutes – or by five years calculated at 20 cigs a day.

It’s astounding how little notice is taken of the damage that alcohol does. Sure, road accidents cause health damage and we’ve acted to lower how much you can drink if you’re driving.

So pushing the risks cannabis pose to health as a reason for continued criminalisation won’t, or shouldn’t, work because it hasn’t with alcohol.

Neither is there reliable evidence that educational programmes about drug use change behaviour. As the FASD statistics show, knowledge of the harm isn’t a guarantee that you won’t indulge, just as capital punishment was never a deterrent to murder. Which is not a reason not to run such programmes.

The social evils of alcohol are legion. We know how it turns some normally mild men into monsters who beat their wives and children. We know how addiction causes poverty and wrecks families.

Smoking only gets you into trouble with the law if you do it in the wrong place. Alcohol, on the other hand, is reckoned by the police to be a factor in 300 offences in New Zealand every day.

And yet over the last century we have done nothing other than liberalise regulations for alcohol (except for those on driving) while treating tobacco as the poison that it is. Here are some of the waypoints along alcohol’s path to normalisation in our daily lives.

Until 1969 bars closed at 6pm and drinkers topped up before leaving. The “six o’clock swill” is remembered only by those of my generation for whom catching a bus after work at that hour was an unpleasant experience.

In that same year (1969) the legal age was reduced from 21 to 20 and in 1999, after much controversy, to the current age of 18. Since 1989 and the Sale of Liquor Act, licensed premises can stay open till 4am and wine became available in supermarkets. Ten years later, shops that could call themselves grocery stores could also sell beer as well as wine from 7am to 11pm, even on Sundays.

Alcohol consumption rose accordingly and, with it, societal and government concern. So the Law Commission was instructed to carry out a review of the liquor laws and made strong recommendations including increased prices through taxation, raising the drinking age back to 20 and reducing bar opening hours.

The review was largely a waste of money. The subsequent government bill of 2012 ignored those recommendations which would have had most effect in reducing alcohol’s accessibility and thus its harm.

Advertising restrictions are recognised as having had a major impact on reducing smoking rates and the Commission also recommended bringing alcohol advertising into line with that of tobacco – as has been achieved in France. But our advertising restrictions are risible. Advertisements must not promote excessive consumption or appeal to minors, and not be placed in prominent positions.

Well then, how prominent are the hoardings and the players’ t-shirts that proclaim alcohol’s sponsorship of sport? Who doesn’t know that rugby has a love affair with Steinlager and the Blackcaps with Dominion Breweries?

The Law Commission’s report delivered an uncompromising verdict on what they consider to be the key driver of alcohol-related harm. It is, they said, “the unbridled commercialisation of alcohol”. Thus the industry has captured government by its coffers.

This is illustrated in the case of “alcopops” or RTDs - drinks in cans that are a ready mix of alcohol and sweet flavourings. They’ve been around since 1996. After serious concerns over their uptake by underage teens, the 2012 Commission’s report recommended an alcohol limit of 5 percent. The National government disagreed and decided to let industry set its own voluntary code, currently 6 percent.

Low-alcohol beers, at 2 percent, would seem a safer drink for the young.

Okay, back to cannabis. Three things:

1. All drugs are harmful but cannabis is arguably less so than tobacco and alcohol;

2. Cannabis is not known to provoke violent reactions in those who use it;

3. The current regime of criminalisation has failed.

Given that my third point is true, the question of whether or not legalisation will introduce another psychoactive substance into the menu is irrelevant. Cannabis has been here for a long time. The current laws on alcohol provide no precedent for how we should regulate cannabis. Rather, they exemplify some of the pitfalls, particularly the commercialisation that has put government at the industry’s beck and call.

Now could be the time to repeal and replace the current legislation, including the Psychoactive Substances Act and the Misuse of Drugs Act. It's no simple task but a worthwhile one.

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