Sunday, September 05, 2004

Alcohol, Tobacco and Cannabis - Class D drugs?

Willie Jackson's Eye to Eye (watch out for the coming new treats from TVNZ - Hand to Hand, Mouth to Mouth, Nose to Nose, Cheek to Cheek and Navel to Navel) featured the continuing debate on decriminalising cannabis. The defenders of the status quo don't seem to deny that cannabis does no more harm than alcohol or tobacco but claim that MPs who support both Smoke-Free legislation and decriminalisation of marijuana are sending kids a "tobacco bad, pot good" message.

I got to wondering whether we shouldn't look at the general law on drug abuse before applying it to specific instances. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 does not consider normal recreational use of substances - in effect it assumes that any non-therapeutic use is abuse. Cannabis leaf, codeine syrup, barbiturates, valium and paracetamol are all class C drugs (moderate potential for harm) but are subclassified as C1 to C6 according to the relative likelihood of therapeutic use as opposed to abuse. There is little doubt that alcohol and tobacco would also be C1's if the criteria of the act were applied to them - although it could be argued that tobacco should be a class B drug given its high addiction potential.

In practice, alcohol and tobacco have been exempted from the provisions of the MDA by the simple expedient of not submitting them for classification. Instead they are regulated through separate acts which provide no criminal sanctions against manufacture, possession, use, non-commercial supply or licenced sale to an adult. This is not the way the law should work. If we wish to allow any recreational drugs (and we obviously do) the law should define general criteria and apply them consistently to all substances.

I would respectfully suggest that we might accomplish this by amending the Misuse of Drugs Act to provide for a new class D (low to moderate potential for harm) of substances which -

(1) have an overall potential for harm similar to class C substances;

(2) have a substantial potential for non-therapeutic use with no or little harm to users; and where

(3) the overall social advantages of the less regulated environment clearly outweigh any increase in the potential for harm arising therefrom.

The regulatory regime for class D drugs would be the same as that for alcohol as provided in the Sale of Liquor Act. The legislation could specify that alcohol, tobacco and cannabis were all class D drugs or (better) could provide an open process for submitting any substance (including alcohol, tobacco and cannabis) for (re)classification by an independent "Substance Classification Board". The new act could also specify that it supercedes the Sale of Liquor Act with respect to any class A, B, C or D substance. All class D substances would be liable to excise duty at a rate to be determined by the Minister of Customs.

Smokefree and Drink Driving laws should also be generalised but these are separate issues. I would, however, envisage a bar where you could (legally) buy a plate of hash brownies, a pack of Pall Mall filters and a pack of Rothmans "Greens" (I know - but they would) with a round of drinks. You could consume the drinks and the brownies on the premises but would have to take both the cigarettes and the pot home. If you drove home (and were unlucky) you might get stopped and tested for proscribed (instant fine) or "deemed impairment" (serious trouble) levels of alcohol, THC and amphetamine (or whatever).

The primary issue is not intergenerational, class or race (though it may seem that way). It is an issue of consistency and proper application of the law. It is proper that the law should operate consistently from general principles to specific outcomes. It is not proper to make or manipulate the law on an ad hoc basis to produce outcomes preferred by those in power. Nor is it proper to enact separate and unequal laws to regulate competing products which differ only in the political clout of the vested interests behind them.

One law for all substances!


Blogger Uroskin said...

Having cannabis prohibited and alcohol promoted may be more intergenerational than presumed.
One has to wonder why Viagra/Cialis are not classified drugs since they are used more recreationally than therapeutically. Is it because their main target is the non-youth market?

6 September 2004 at 12:35 PM  
Blogger Cal said...

They're regulated under the Medicines Act, which links to the Misuse of Drugs Act. The Misuse of Drugs Act is only one part of the regulatory framework for drugs medicines in NZ. Some substances are regulated both under the Misuse of Drugs Act and Medicines Act(depending on the quantity of the drug in question.)

I wish someone would request the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs to take a look at classification of Alcohol and Tobacco.

7 September 2004 at 7:17 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

It may be considered that by taxing a drug the state would be in some way condoning its use (and taking responsibility for quality, etc). The Dutch have taken an alternative approach - possession of dope isn't illegal, and the government doesn't bother to investigate the details of how people get hold of it (that's how it seems to work out - I'm not very up on the actual laws of the Netherlands).

Hans makes a good point on V****a - it's borderline as to whether it can be recreational or therapeutic. 'E' was once a licensed pharmaceutical (as a diet drug) - arguably it (or someting similar) could be prescribed as an alternative and preferable substance to alcohol (or 'P').

[BTW, did you know that Heroin is a trade name? It was invented at roughly the same time and by the same company as Asparin].

7 September 2004 at 3:15 PM  
Blogger Greyshade said...

Hans, Rich: Good points. My only comment on the "intergenerational" nature of cannabis laws is that we "Woodstock Generaton People" are now in our fifties.
I didn't mention the Medicines Act as this discussion was about non-therapeutic use.
Cal: A private submission to the EACD is a possibility but I imagine they would decline to consider tobacco and alcohol on the grounds that they were already covered by other legislation. We need an amendment to the MDA which explicitly overrides (or supercedes) the Sale of Liquor Act et al and/or requires the EACD to consider alcohol. tobacco and existing class C substances likely to be affected by the amendment. I believe we are all agreed on the central point - the current inconsistent treatment of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana is wrong.

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