Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33, No. 2 4 March 1970
The Drug Report
The Drug Report
In writing her comments on the First Report of the Committee on Drug Dependency and Drug Abuse in New Zealand, (published on 16 February), Miss Swain must have worked in great haste to meet the deadline for the 18 February issue of Salient. This haste might well account for certain inaccuracies and misinterpretations contained in her brief review of a complex report of 157 pages.
However, in the interests of informed discussion the Committee feels that certain points in the review should be corrected or clarified.
In the first place: Miss Swain contrasts the Committee's decision not to recommend any changes in the legal penalties for marijuana or other drug offences with the (alleged) lowering of penalties in Britain and similar moves for relaxation of the law relating to marijuana in the USA. The implication is that New Zealand is as usual behind the times. Miss Swain, however, fails to point out (as the Report does, in para 3.16) that the New Zealand Narcotics Act 1965 provides penalties which are already comparable to and in some respects less stringent than the proposals at present being considered overseas. This Act (which for its own purposes defines narcotics as including besides the opiates certain other drugs which are pharmacologically hallucinogenic, such as cannabis and LSD) makes a basic distinction between the offences of possession and use of such legally defined 'narcotics' and that of 'dealing in narcotics'. The penalty for possession and use of these 'narcotics' is a fine of up to $400 or three months' imprisonment or both, while 'dealing in narcotics' carries a maximum of 14 years' imprisonment and/or a fine which as far as the Magistrate's Court is concerned is limited to $2,000.
In Britain, the opiates, cannabis and a variety of other drugs liable to abuse are controlled under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1965, which provides maximum penalties for possession, use and supply as follows—on summary conviction a fine not exceeding $500 or imprisonment for not more than 12 months or both, and on conviction on indictment (that is, in the High Court) a fine not exceeding $2,000 or imprisonment for not more than ten years or both. In 1968 the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence in its Report on Cannabis (commonly called the Wootton Report) recommended various changes in the penalties relating to cannabis, but at the time of the Board of Health report these had not been acted upon by the British legislature except for some minor points. Dealing with cannabis only, the Wootton Report recommended that the principle of a single offence, namely 'unlawful possession, sale or supply of cannabis or its derivatives', be retained, but that it should carry a low range of penalties on summary conviction and a substantially higher range on indictment. The Report 'anticipated' that police would proceed on indictment only where there was evidence of organised large-scale trafficking, while offences involving simple possession and small scale traffickings would be dealt with summarily. The penalties recommended were: on summary conviction, a fine of up to $200 or imprisonment not exceeding four months or both; and on conviction on indictment an unlimited fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or both. One member of the Committee, Mr P. E. Brodie, registered a minority opinion in favour of a much higher term of imprisonment for conviction on indictment, if trafficking were to be dealt with effectively.
Thus as far as the possession and use of cannabis are concerned, the New Zealand Narcotics Act is more liberal even than the Wootton Report in that it sets a lower maximum prison term, and by providing for a higher maximum fine actually decreases the need to impose a prison term.
It should be pointed out that the penalties laid down in the Narcotics Act are maximum penalties, not mandatory ones, allowing magistrates considerable discretion in dealing with offenders. Having heard submissions from a senior magistrate and the Secretary for Justice the Committee has reason to believe that this discretion is being exercised wisely to distinguish between offenders abusing drugs of various kinds and according to the seriousness of their involvement. The Committee can see no need for separate legislation for each and every category of drugs when the courts already have such discretion (See 8.18).
Secondly: the Committee disclaims utterly the assertion that it 'virtually equates possession of cannabis with committing a serious assault by moral standards'. This assertion is based on a complete misreading of a passage in 8.13, in which quite the opposite meaning was intended. (Perhaps the Committee's use of a double negative was the trouble). Throughout the Report the Committee stresses the need for a compassionate and unself-righteous attitude to drug abusers and makes extensive reference to the general tendency to over-reliance on drugs in New Zealand society at large.
Thirdly; While the Report does stress the need for psychiatric care for certain types of drug abusers, it does not (as Miss Swain's summary implies) insist on it for all. Rather the Report stresses that abusers vary widely and that their varying needs and circumstances should be met by a variety of forms of treatment. For those in an advanced stage of dependency and/or with psychiatric problems, treatment in a psychiatric hospital is essential, but there are others for whom such treatment would be both unnecessary and unhelpful. Accordingly the Report stresses the importance of providing adequate facilities for the assessment not only of drug offenders but also of those who seek help voluntarily, as a basis for choosing the most appropriate form of treatment and guidance. The word 'psychiatric' does not appear in Recommendation 14: what is intended is an all round assessment that is concerned with the total personality and with such factors as environment and motivation. (See 9.1 and 9.6-9.11).
Fourthly: I would point out that the Committee had complete freedom in the whole conduct of its enquiries, deliberations and all the substance of the report, the recommendations and content of the appendices were the direct outcome of its own deliberations. The Committee has in no way at any time been subject to any direction by 'officialdom'.
As Miss Swain says, this is a First Report. In its conclusion the Committee stresses "the fact that a topic is referred to in this report or is the subject of a recommendation does not preclude further consideration, especially of broader issues". The Committee was disappointed that more individuals and organisations-especially student bodies—did not respond to its advertised invitation to make submissions, and would welcome further objective representations from such quarters.
For those who wish to judge the Report for themselves six copies were supplied to the University Library and three to the Students' Association.
(Editor's note: Miss Swain may or may not have "worked in great haste to meet the deadline for the 18 February issue of Salient." Dr Blake-Palmer would know, however, that copies of the Interim Report were supplied to the press well before the publication date of 16 February. Miss Swain was, in fact, given a copy of the Report by me on 12 February. She was not asked to 'review' the Report but was asked to read it as thoroughly as she could in the few days available and provide some brief comments on its principal recommendations.)