Chris Fowlie started fighting for cannabis law reform in his university days.
Twenty-four years later, the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (Norml) president believes the tide of public opinion is changing.
Fowlie wants a moratorium on arrests for cannabis possession, saying it's impossible to have a fair discussion when one side is deemed criminals.
A regulated cannabis market could generate half a billion dollars, investigations show, but the government is still saying no.
So Fowlie says police are decriminalising by stealth. Prosecution of low-level cannabis offences has dropped sharply in recent years. "Even though Parliament has shown it isn't able to have a sensible discussion ... police has brought in its own form of decriminalisation."
He says relying on discretion is not enough, though, with Maori and those in rural areas treated disproportionately harshly.
CHANGE IS IN THE AIR
Peter Dunne is speaking at a special United Nations meeting this week, which reformers hope will spark changes to prohibition treaties.
The Associate Health Minister has described the war on drugs as "an abject failure".
Five years ago, he said the Misuse of Drugs Act would be overhauled, as recommended by the Law Commission.
While minor steps have been taken, Dunne says the government is still "looking at" the role of drug laws.
"We may make a decision at some point in the future about changes to those, but no changes are being contemplated at the moment."
Dunne is also cool on legalising cannabis, despite possible economic benefits.
"The Government's done no work at all about the costs and savings of a regulated market, because it's not on our agenda," he said.
Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell says all drugs should be decriminalised, with a health system replacing criminal penalties.
The Foundation is also in favour of regulating lower-risk drugs, such as cannabis.
Bell says outright prohibition and an unrestrained free market are both extreme approaches.
"There's lots a government can do between the two."
DECRIMINALISATION WON'T HURT GANGS
Police Association president Greg O'Connor recently said decriminalisation did not deal with those running the supply side.
"If we were to liberalise our cannabis laws, the main reason should be to get the criminals out of the business, and only full legalisation and regulation does that."
The main outcome of the Law Commission review was the Psychoactive Substances Act for regulating legal highs.
Hailed as world-leading, it stalled over testing requirement issues.
Dunne says his personal view is that once the regime is working well, there could be an opportunity for regulating low-risk drugs. "That would be some years away."
Massey University drug policy expert Chris Wilkins agrees the framework could be adapted to cannabis.
However, he says, not enough thought or planning went into the Psychoactive Substances regime. "They ended up with a slightly hybrid, cowboy kind of market that no-one understood or really liked."
Wilkins says cannabis has been extensively studied, and "the answer is not that it's harmless".
Risks include dependency, impact on mental health, and problems associated with use by young people. "It's important to really understand those risks, because they are going to affect people's lives."
No party in Parliament currently advocates for cannabis decriminalisation.
Bell says the current government is cautious, but closely watches opinion polls. "It's almost in politicians' DNA. Their gut instinct is to try and look tough on drugs.
"My sense is that's no longer a tenable position. This public is expecting more."
- Sunday Star Times