By Paula Lambert
My school-age son came home a few years ago singing 'marijuana, marijuana' and I knew he hadn't heard it at home. This worried me on several levels.
Although there has been talk of cannabis law reform around my kitchen table for a couple of years, I know the word marijuana - as well as the sight or smell of the substance - had never been on his radar before. And although very intelligent, he is curious, rather cheeky, and a bit of a risk-taker.
I knew he would probably come in contact with cannabis sooner rather than later, and later is preferable. But as a result of the short-sighted 1991 Proceeds of Crime Act 'tinnie houses' sprang up on every second street throughout NZ. They are easy to find because our black market is massive, and it’s not R18. Anecdotally I know tinnie houses even sell cannabis that has been sprayed with Roundup by the police.
Teenagers in New Zealand have the highest youth uptake of cannabis in the world. Contrast this with the Netherlands, where they demystified cannabis years ago - by relegating it to R18 cafes and prescription-only pharmacies - and as a result have a youth uptake level that has dropped to a fraction of what it is here.
Because my son is Maori that puts him at an added risk because Maori are arrested at a far greater rate than non-Maori kids. Police say cannabis arrest rates have dropped by about 14%, but I wonder whether they still arrest Maori more often than middle-class white kids. Through getting out and about talking with people about cannabis, my anecdotal evidence says that aspect definitely hasn’t changed.
The quality of law impacts significantly on our community well-being. For this democracy of ours to work properly it is important that there be information and systems available to help us judge how well these laws are working. After examining exactly how our 1975 law prohibiting cannabis was formulated - and has since been enforced - I have come to the uneasy conclusion that it is not working, and never will. In fact the situation has got worse as the years have passed. Today there is more cannabis (and other drugs) available, and it is easier to get than ever before. When the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed in 1975 I was 15 and cannabis was relatively easy to get, but not universally, as it is now.
No matter how much of my tax money politicians throw at drug prohibition, there is little difference. It is the same in other countries. In the USA, where they throw people in jail at the drop of a hat, many of those who work at the coalface of drug abuse and addiction are realising there is something desperately wrong with the approach.
Because cannabis is illegal how can I, as a loving and responsible parent, impart some sort of credible health message about it? Anyone who has had kids will know that they often only listen with one ear. When it comes to trouble, they think they are bullet-proof and invisible, and don’t believe for a second that they might get caught with it, or it may do them harm. It would be too easy to tell my son that this law is applied in a racist way. I think it would be far more safe and effective to say ‘just say know’ instead of ‘just say no.’
It is also too easy for us to blame cannabis itself (or alcohol, for that matter) for things we think are wrong in our communities. Perhaps we collectively need to take a good look at ourselves.
In NZ we support politicians, doctors, parents and schools who condone prescribing noisy, active ‘naughty’ children Ritalin. We have drug companies pushing old and new drugs openly on TV (the only other country in the world, beside the USA, that allows it). We have grifters such as Trevor Grice and Pauline Gardiner on the radio who scaremonger, exaggerate, criticise, and try to sell their particular brand of simplistic 'life education programmes' to schools, pleading for more of my taxpayer dollars. And now NZ Health Boards are promoting expensive drug testing kits to schools and frightened parents.
It might be useful to remember that, in today’s world of the internet and mobile phones in every second pocket, kids are better informed about all sorts of things we never even thought about at their age. Just how dumb do we think we can keep them?
The most knowledgeable experts agree that the poverty our most 'at risk' children live in is the single most important danger factor for them. But while the majority of poor and sole parents spend much of their time simply trying to put food on the table, they are morally judged and denigrated by many in the community. Despite the significance of poverty, that issue is just not addressed properly. We just build more prisons to make room for these kids in the future, and call it 'justice.'
When we have drug laws that protect no one, we have no one but ourselves to blame. As a fellow activist mum said, "How can you be a good mother today, and not be politically involved!"
By "activist," I simply mean that you care about your family and your country enough to want to take action to ensure your government is being used for your family's health, education, and safety, rather than to make the rich richer or to rob your tax dollars to pay for unnecessary drug wars based on lies.
When sport or ballet lessons overtake civic engagement, democracy dies. If your child was seriously ill, you would not think twice about giving up soccer. What is the difference between that and our childrens' society and planet being in critical condition? Our children's future is bleak unless far more of us act now: There is no need for a conflict between being a good mother and being civically engaged.
It is for our children's safety - our number one responsibility as mothers - that we must stand up for human rights, education and health, and environmental justice now, for everyone, and not just the privileged few.
If we parents don't teach our kids to be an activist for real justice, who will?