BY CHRIS FOWLIE
A coroner’s call to escalate the “War on Drugs” received a lot of media coverage, but was condemned by health professionals including the Drug Foundation and the Public Health Association.
In calling for a return to “just say no” education, Wellington coroner Garry Evans had ignored best practice and a wealth of international evidence in his attack on the current policy of harm minimisation, said the Drug Foundation.
“It sounds really sensible to take a tough approach … but what that ignores is the reality of human nature,” said New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell. “Human beings have been finding ways of altering their state of mind for thousands of years. In spite all of that law enforcement people are still using drugs.”
“The drug-war approach has seen drug use rise significantly for 20 years in the US, while it locks away more citizens than any other developed nation. New Zealand per capita sits second in that statistic; we need policies that ensure we at least rise no higher.”
Mr Bell also questioned whether the coroner’s recommendations can be supported by his findings into the deaths of six young people.
“Mr Evans has drawn a very long bow by recommending a major overhaul of New Zealand’s drug policy and education based on the findings of six tragic deaths from gas inhaling. Indeed, his recommendation for a national drug education campaign ignores all the evidence about how to most effectively deal with inhalant abuse, which actually warns against publicising the issue because it can lead to increased inhalant abuse.”
Bugger the evidence though, coroner Evans says the current official policy of harm minimisation, which accepts that people will take drugs and tries to make it safer, just sends the wrong message. Evans cited unpublished research from Prof Richard Beasley of Wellington’s Medical Research Institute, who has been trying to see if smoking cannabis causes lung cancer. The study is incomplete and has not been peer reviewed, but Beasley speculated that because Maori have higher rates of lung cancer than non-Maori, and because Maori smoke cannabis at a higher rate, that cannabis could be the cause. This was widely reported in the media as evidence that cannabis may cause cancer. But official statistics show Maori smoke cannabis at only a slightly higher rate: 20% are current users, compared to 18% of the total sample.
In his paper, Beasley cited old research by Donald Tashkin of the USA, whose research into lung damage is often cited by drug prohibitionists. Beasley was, however, unaware of more recent research by Tashkin, which was reported in the Winter 2005 issue of Norml News. Marijuana smokers were found to have a lower rate of lung cancer than even nonsmokers. Tashkin found that marijuana is less carcinogenic than tobacco smoke and may even have some anticancer properties.
Robert Melamede, chair of biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, recently published a review of studies in the Oct. 17 issue of Harm Reduction Journal. He found that although cannabis smoke and tobacco smoke are chemically very similar, the cancer-promoting effects of smoke are increased by nicotine, while they are reduced by THC.
Anti-drug zealots Pauline Gardiner and Trevor Grice rallied round in support of Evans. Gardiner – who once said that “we’d be better off if all dope-smokers died, because then the state wouldn’t have to support them” – was proposed by Grice to be NZ’s first “drug czar”, in charge of all drug policy and enforcement. Mr Evan’s recommendations had included using specialists – such as Gardiner and Grice – to deliver drug education in schools.
However, the PHA’s Dr Keating says that evidence suggests that school drug education programmes should be taught by teachers, and there is a “question mark over the effectiveness of programmes delivered by outside agencies”.
“At the moment we have the bizarre situation of organisations like the Life Education Trust going into schools and offering programmes that include smoking prevention, even through the Trust receives funding from British American Tobacco. We should be asking why it is that tobacco manufacturers are so keen to support youth smoking prevention programmes. Could it be because they know they certain types of programmes don’t work?.”
(Norml News Summer 2006)