(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., January 10.)
Oh, dear. Ross Bell of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, after years of agitating for relaxation of the drug laws, is fretting that liberalisation might open the way to corporate domination of the cannabis trade.
Hmmm. Perhaps he should heed the old saying about being careful what you wish for.
Bell has long advocated a permissive approach to so-called recreational drugs. His argument is that drug use should be treated as a health issue rather than criminalised. So you’d expect him to be thrilled that the government has promised a binding referendum on decriminalisation of cannabis.
A crucial first step has already been taken with the passing of the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill, which essentially legalises the use of cannabis by people with a terminal illness.
You can take it as read that the activists’ ultimate goal is decriminalisation of the drug altogether, and perhaps other drugs too. That’s how advocates of “progressive” social change advance their agenda: incrementally.
It’s a strategy that relies on a gradual softening-up process. No single step along the way, taken in isolation, is radical enough to alarm the public. Change is often justified on grounds of common sense or compassion, as the legalisation of medicinal cannabis for terminally ill people certainly can be.
But each victory serves as a platform for the next. Once change has bedded in and the public has accepted it as the new normal, the activists advance to the next stage. The full agenda is never laid out, because that might frighten the horses.
In this instance, presumably to reassure us that Labour and the Greens aren’t totally soft on drugs, the passage of the medicinal cannabis bill was closely followed by an announcement that the government will crack down on dealers of the synthetic cannabis that has been causing mayhem.
But there should be no doubt that what we’re observing is decriminalisation by stealth, which the National Party gave as its reason for not supporting the medicinal cannabis bill.
Now, back to Bell’s misgivings about where the cannabis referendum might lead.
It’s not decriminalisation that worries him. Why would it, when for years he’s been using his taxpayer-subsidised job to lobby for exactly that outcome?
No, what upsets him is the thought of the drugs trade being contaminated by the profit motive. A liberal drugs regime is all very well, just as long as the trade doesn’t fall into the hands of wicked corporate capitalists.
Bell’s vision, obviously, is of something much purer and more noble, although it’s not entirely clear what model he has in mind. A People’s Collective, perhaps.
It will surprise no one that Professor Doug Sellman, the director of the National Addiction Centre, has expressed similar misgivings. Sellman likes the idea of legalising cannabis but doesn’t want companies making money from it.
I suspect Sellman and Bell are at least partly motivated by hostility toward capitalism. They certainly share a dislike - which in Sellman's case could be classified as obsessive - of the capitalist liquor industry.
Given that cannabis and alcohol are both potentially dangerous mind-altering drugs, why do both men display a more forgiving attitude to the former than to the latter? In my opinion the reason is at least partly ideological. It’s the capitalist business model, as much as anything, that they object to.
But (news flash!) New Zealand is a capitalist economy, and it generally works pretty well. It’s not perfect, but no one has come up with a better alternative.
If Bell wants the cannabis trade made legal, what difference does it make whether the drug is marketed by DopeCorp Inc, operating from a Queen Street high-rise, or by a dreadlocked stoner from Golden Bay?
It could be argued that a public company, subject to corporate and consumer law and with directors who are accountable for what they grow and sell, might be a safer purveyor of cannabis than a backyard dealer.
To put it another way: if a safe, regulated cannabis market is the way to go, and corporates are best-placed to deliver that outcome, what’s the objection? It can only be ideological.
The much bigger issue, of course, is whether we should decriminalise cannabis use in the first place. There are strong arguments running both ways.
The parallels with alcohol are obvious. Both can cause great harm to a minority of users, although activists like to play down the adverse consequences of drugs other than alcohol. We don’t hear much, for example, about the devastating effects cannabis can have on the young or the mentally unstable.
But if we're going to have an honest national debate about cannabis, the important thing, surely, is that it should focus on social wellbeing rather than being distorted by covert ideological agendas.