High time

A spate of deaths linked to syn­thetic cannabis is just the lat­est ev­i­dence New Zealand’s pro­hi­bi­tion-and-pun­ish­ment ap­proach to drug use is fail­ing.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — MATT ZWARTZ

A spate of deaths linked to syn­thetic cannabis is just the lat­est tragic ev­i­dence New Zealand’s pro­hi­bi­tion-and-pun­ish­ment ap­proach to drug use is a fail­ure. Matt Zwartz makes the case for re­form.

The TV3 lead­ers de­bate oc­curred at a crit­i­cal point in the elec­tion. The polls were nar­row­ing dra­mat­i­cally, Jacin­da­ma­nia was in full ef­fect, and the coun­try felt ab­nor­mally gal­vanised by pro­ceed­ings.

Paddy Gower was in charge of mod­er­a­tion, pos­si­bly the first of many oxy­morons that night, and Bill English and Jacinda Ardern faced off across their podi­ums, ready to demon­strate their in­tel­li­gence, their fore­sight and their over­all fit­ness for run­ning the coun­try.

The crowd was amped, in­volved, hang­ing on every word as the top­ics ranged from hous­ing and child poverty to im­mi­gra­tion and in­fra­struc­ture. One hour and six min­utes in, Gower steered the con­ver­sa­tion to­wards drug law re­form and the de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of cannabis.

Gower: “Let’s say there’s a pro­posed bill put up that means no charges if you’re caught with 40 grams of cannabis or less. That’s about the size of a muesli bar.”

A muesli bar? The crowd roared with laugh­ter. Bill English heartily joined in. “You ex­pect peo­ple to eat it?” Jacinda asked, grin­ning ner­vously.

The laugh­ter died on the hot air of the room. “Would you vote for that,

Bill English?” Gower asked. English’s ex­pres­sion turned to one of grav­i­tas.

“No, I wouldn’t at the mo­ment.

There’s a few coun­tries who are try­ing de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion. I guess some­one has to make the case there would be less harm from de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion. Ef­fec­tively, the po­lice ex­er­cise dis­cre­tion now so you’ve got prag­matic, low de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion in New Zealand any­way. But look, this is a drug, which af­ter years of de­bate in New Zealand still re­mains an il­le­gal drug, and the rea­son for that is be­cause you see the dam­age it does to peo­ple. Now if th­ese other coun­tries, like Por­tu­gal, or Colorado in the United States, can show that a more lib­eral regime would mean less harm, then I’d look at it.”

Ardern was quick to point out Labour weren’t cam­paign­ing on it, just in case any­one thought her party might be pro­drugs. “But the Law Com­mis­sion has done an in­cred­i­ble piece of work that says they’d like to see us take much more of a health-based ap­proach in­stead of a crim­i­nal jus­tice ap­proach.”

“So no to de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion?” Gower pushed.

“I do want to see some change. I want to see us deal­ing with this as a health is­sue and not a jus­tice is­sue. Lock­ing some­one up for smok­ing weed is a waste of money and doesn’t help fix an in­di­vid­ual’s prob­lem. Putting them into re­hab does.”

Gower: “But if you say that, then why won’t you vote for de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion? Why won’t you give us a straight an­swer?”

Ardern gripped the podium and prat­tled: “Be­cause we could do that now but we’re not. We haven’t in­vested enough in re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and sup­port for drug and al­co­hol ad­dic­tion ser­vices.”

And that was that for drug law re­form in the de­bate. The health and hu­man rights as­pi­ra­tions of the na­tion’s drug users, the ex­am­i­na­tion of a sys­tem proven to be in­her­ently racist, and the clear moral and hu­man wrong of im­pris­on­ing peo­ple for drug use with

all of its con­se­quences, dis­tilled into those two min­utes: in­com­pre­hen­si­ble lib­eral bab­bling and a right-wing study in dis­sem­bling and disin­ge­nu­ity; a how-to guide on be­ing cyn­i­cally ob­tuse.

It was the mo­ment peo­ple all around the coun­try who are pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally con­cerned about the harms be­ing caused by our cur­rent drug laws col­lec­tively face-palmed.

An 11-year-old watch­ing the de­bate next to me shook his head. “Th­ese are our lead­ers? They’re cringe, bro.”

For the record, let’s state an unas­sail­able fact: New Zealand’s sys­tem of pro­hi­bi­tion un­der our cur­rent drug laws causes more harm than it pre­vents. A spoon­ful of sugar from Jacinda or Bill will not help that medicine go down.

In 2016, po­lice charged 6310 peo­ple with drug of­fences, with 27 per cent, or 1700, of those for the rel­a­tively mi­nor charges of pos­ses­sion or use. That same year, the courts con­victed 5011 peo­ple, again with 27 per cent, or 1352, of those for pos­ses­sion or use. Peo­ple un­der 30 made up nearly half of the con­vic­tions; 81 per cent were male. De­spite Maori mak­ing up only 15 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, 42 per cent of those con­victed were tan­gata whenua. Of the drug con­vic­tion to­tal, 3296 were for mar­i­juana of­fences, and 1186, or 36 per cent, of those were for simple pos­ses­sion or use.

Does the pun­ish­ment fit the crime? Maybe if you be­lieve in some kind of dystopian fun­da­men­tal­ist-Chris­tian hell, but not in pro­gres­sive New Zealand. The op­por­tu­nity costs for peo­ple con­victed of drug pos­ses­sion mul­ti­ply like her­pes, the gift that keeps on giv­ing. A con­vic­tion can se­verely af­fect ac­cess to credit, in­sur­ance, ac­com­mo­da­tion, ed­u­ca­tion and travel, and dam­age or de­stroy per­sonal re­la­tion­ships and fam­ily. If a con­vic­tion re­sults in a cus­to­dial sen­tence, the of­fender will en­ter a univer­sity of crime, where they will likely be forced to join a gang just to pro­tect them­selves.

When you con­sider around 410,000 New Zealan­ders ad­mit to reg­u­larly us­ing cannabis, and 80 per cent of young peo­ple ad­mit to try­ing it, two con­clu­sions are ob­vi­ous: the po­lice are ei­ther very bad at their job or are of­fer­ing an un­prece­dented amount of dis­cre­tion; and why in 2017 are we still ar­rest­ing and con­vict­ing peo­ple for pos­ses­sion of drugs any­way? When en­forc­ing our law strips peo­ple of their fun­da­men­tal right to op­por­tu­nity — es­pe­cially for those un­der 25 whose lives are still be­gin­ning — we have lifted the use of drugs be­yond be­ing a health is­sue and into the do­main of hu­man rights.

Com­pound­ing the egre­gious wrong of our laws is the cost of en­forc­ing them, and the cost of our fail­ure to put that money to bet­ter use for ed­u­ca­tion and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. The Min­istry of Health’s Drug Harm In­dex puts the cost of New Zealand’s lit­tle ter­ri­tory of the drug war at $273 mil­lion for law en­force­ment, with an­other $78 mil­lion in min­istry in­ter­ven­tions.

Yet the Trea­sury es­ti­mates that if mar­i­juana were le­galised, the tax take alone would be around $245 mil­lion an­nu­ally. That’s nearly as much as we cur­rently spend try­ing to fight an al­ready en­trenched black mar­ket be­ing run by our worst kind of en­trepreneurs: the gangs.

Sta­tis­tics re­leased by the Na­tional

Drug In­tel­li­gence Bureau to Metro un­der the Of­fi­cial In­for­ma­tion Act show for all that in­vest­ment, re­ally all we’re do­ing is find­ing more drugs. Be­cause, guess what? New Zealan­ders love drugs. Metham­phetamine seizures have climbed from just 13kg in 2012 to an al­most un­be­liev­able 941kg in 2016. Re­mem­ber John Key and the so-called “suc­cess” of the Meth Plan? Seiz­ing nearly 1000kg in un­der a year is proof of in­creased de­mand, not less. In 2012, 498kg of pre­cur­sors were seized; in 2016, that had climbed to 1243kg. Co­caine seizures more th than dou­bled from 15kg in 2012 to 36kg in 2016. Heroin a and opi­oid drugs r re­mained largely s static, mov­ing from a mere 18 grams i in 2012 to 53 grams in 2016 (with the ex­cep­tion of one large bust of 16kg in 2014). LSD seizures in­creased from just over 1000 tabs in

2012 to more than 23,000 in 2016. The only drugs to fall in the sta­tis­tics are two of the safest drugs in the world: ec­stasy, which fell from 218,000 tablets in 2012 to 118,000 in 2016, and mar­i­juana, which fell from nearly 150,000 plants in 2012 to 122,000 in 2016.

It’s hard not to won­der if the fall in mar­i­juana seizures and the rise in syn­thet­ics, which have been linked to 20 deaths this year, are re­lated. If mar­i­juana were le­gal and avail­able, would those peo­ple still be alive today?

If you’re still not con­vinced that pro­hi­bi­tion isn’t low­er­ing de­mand, the Na­tional Drug Pol­icy 2015 to 2020 es­ti­mates that 44 per cent of adult New Zealan­ders have tried an il­le­gal drug at some point in their lives. That’s more than two mil­lion peo­ple who are by def­i­ni­tion crim­i­nals. Look around next time you’re walk­ing down Queen St or sit­ting at the mall in St Lukes. Sta­tis­ti­cally, nearly half the adults around you have tried drugs.

Back in Oc­to­ber 2009, Metro asked if New Zealand’s drug laws were due for a re­think. Eight years on, the era of po­lite sug­ges­tions has clearly passed. Pro­hi­bi­tion by any met­ric is a bucket of fail. It’s time to de­mand change.

Drug Foun­da­tion CEO Ross Bell is fired up. He’s furious about the on­go­ing hypocrisy of Par­lia­ment. Many of its mem­bers have ad­mit­ted, ei­ther freely or un­der me­dia co­er­cion, to hav­ing smoked pot. Yet there they are, oc­cu­py­ing their seats by the good for­tune of hav­ing avoided ar­rest, and now lec­tur­ing the rest of

New Zealand on the per­ils of drugs they en­joyed with­out con­se­quence.

“Politi­cians wouldn’t want to be in the same boat they put oth­ers in,” says Bell. “Many MPs ad­mit to smok­ing weed and break­ing the law. If any of them had a crim­i­nal con­vic­tion, there’s no way they’d

For all that in­vest­ment, re­ally all we’re do­ing is find­ing more drugs. Be­cause, guess what? New Zealan­ders love drugs.

be in Par­lia­ment. So where do they get off think­ing it’s okay for other peo­ple to get a crim­i­nal con­vic­tion?”

It’s a good ques­tion. The con­vic­tion of those 1186 peo­ple last year for mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion or use gives the lie to English’s claim po­lice dis­cre­tion has cre­ated a kind of de facto de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion. Be­sides, is that re­ally how we want to run and en­force our drug laws, through the prism of a po­lice of­fi­cer’s value judge­ments?

The fun­da­men­tal con­cept un­der­pin­ning democ­racy is that ev­ery­one is equal un­der the law. Given that Maori are 15 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion but ac­count for 42 per cent of the con­vic­tions, they are with­out ques­tion re­ceiv­ing what AUT law lec­turer Khylee Quince calls “the pointy end of dis­cre­tion”. Are our drug laws fa­cil­i­tat­ing sys­temic racism?

“It is, as is the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem as a whole,” says Quince. “But the lit­tle part that con­cerns drug of­fend­ing? It’s par­tic­u­larly racist.” From be­hind her desk on the top floor of AUT’s law fac­ulty, an in­con­gru­ous col­lec­tion of posters on the walls in­clud­ing Jon Snow, Lemmy from Mo­tor­head, Star Wars and Liver­pool Foot­ball Club, she is an­i­mated. “There are only two ways you can ex­plain that data. One is dif­fer­en­tial in­volve­ment, which is that there are more Maori en­gaged in that sort of of­fend­ing. The other is the dis­crim­i­na­tion the­sis, which is that you are more likely to be looked at, caught, pro­cessed, charged, con­victed.”

She cites re­search pa­pers which show lit­tle dif­fer­ence be­tween Maori use of cannabis with other pop­u­la­tion co­horts in New Zealand. “We know it’s not dif­fer­en­tial in­volve­ment, not [with] cannabis at least, so it’s ab­so­lutely the se­cond the­sis, which is you’re dis­crim­i­nated against in the way that you’re pro­cessed.”

In 2015 on TV3’s The Na­tion, Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Mike Bush ad­mit­ted that the po­lice held an “un­con­scious bias” to­wards Maori, and that was par­tic­u­larly re­flected in the way they were likely to ap­ply dis­cre­tion.

Bell: “Let’s call it what it is, which is in­sti­tu­tional racism. The data backs up that view, and I cer­tainly hold it; when you look at the rates of ev­ery­thing from po­lice ap­pre­hen­sions to ar­rests to get­ting be­fore the court to ul­ti­mately get­ting a con­vic­tion in­clud­ing a cus­to­dial sen­tence, Maori in each of those stages are much more likely to have them hap­pen. There’s no rea­son other than racism to ex­plain that away.”

Says Quince: “Judges can only deal with peo­ple who make it to that part of the sys­tem and there are a whole lot of pro­cesses be­fore you get there. Some­thing like 80 per cent of of­fend­ers are dealt with in an in­for­mal way. The crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem largely op­er­ates as a process of at­tri­tion. It couldn’t pos­si­bly cope with every of­fender of every of­fence be­ing for­mally pro­cessed. Which is why we place most re­spon­si­bil­ity for dis­cre­tion with the first re­spon­ders, and that’s the po­lice. [Th­ese sta­tis­tics] are to be laid al­most en­tirely at the feet of the po­lice.”

Quince tells a story from her part­ner, a Year 8 teacher in South Auck­land. “He con­ducts a weekly quiz with the chil­dren, and the ques­tion that week was, ‘What do you call the peo­ple in a court­room whose job it is to de­cide if you are in­no­cent or guilty?’ A Maori kid at the front waves his hand: ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ Yes? ‘Pake­has.’” We both laugh, then ex­change a guilty look. Quince shakes her head. “Sad but true.”

Today the po­lice line to Metro is that our drug laws are nei­ther hyp­o­crit­i­cal nor racist, and if New Zealand is go­ing to beat its drug prob­lem, we need to dou­ble down on our cur­rent strate­gies. Richard Cham­bers, as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner (in­ves­ti­ga­tions), is friendly, earnest and clearly pas­sion­ate about the harm drugs like metham­phetamine are caus­ing our com­mu­ni­ties. But is New Zealand win­ning the drug war? “The re­sults we get we’re very proud of. We get some out­stand­ing re­sults in terms of hold­ing ac­count­able those who sup­ply and dis­trib­ute drugs. Peo­ple go to jail for a very long time. We can at­tack their as­set bases. The re­al­ity is in­ter­na­tion­ally, the il­licit drug trade is com­plex and is go­ing to be chal­leng­ing and it’s chang­ing all the time.”

Good re­sults like the huge dis­par­ity in the Maori rates of con­vic­tion and in­car­cer­a­tion? Cham­bers doesn’t be­lieve that there’s any­thing racist in the sta­tis­tics. “I would dis­agree with that view. What I would say is that Maori are over-rep­re­sented in a num­ber of sta­tis­tics, and that’s some­thing we’re work­ing hard to change. One of our goals by 2025 is to re­duce Maori of­fend­ing rates by 25 per cent. It’s the right thing to do for Maori peo­ple. I ve­he­mently dis­agree with the com­ment about it be­ing racist.”

But on the com­mis­sioner’s com­ments about un­con­scious bias, I get an an­swer that might be straight out of Yes, Min­is­ter: “As the com­mis­sioner said, un­con­scious bias is some­thing we need to be con­scious of in mak­ing our de­ci­sions, and that’s healthy. That’s got to be a healthy thingth to have at the front of our minds. When­ever we en­gage with any per­son, ir­re­spec­tive of their back­ground, age, gen­der, eth­nic­ity, or their lives to that point. So it’s healthy to have in our minds un­con­scious bias, as the com­mis­sioner said, to en­sure we’re all im­par­tial. It’s what we sign up to. Ac­tu­ally, I think our coun­try’s come a very long way.”

Con­fused? So is the po­lice view on what our laws should be. On the one hand Cham­bers is em­phatic that “the law is the law, and the po­lice are here to en­force the law”. They hold no view on what the law should be. But when pushed on whether, if po­lice de­vel­oped a view, they would con­trib­ute to a se­lect com­mit­tee process, for ex­am­ple, he says yes, but op­tions like de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion or le­gal­i­sa­tion with in­tel­li­gent reg­u­la­tion would be firmly off the ta­ble. Asked if he could ever coun­te­nance the le­gal­i­sa­tion of P, he’s adamant. “Ab­so­lutely not. We’d hate to think that such a dis­cus­sion would even be en­ter­tained. Be­cause of the harm it’s caused to fam­i­lies, to in­di­vid­u­als, the vi­o­lence, it’s an in­cred­i­bly ad­dic­tive drug that has the po­ten­tial to de­stroy the heart

and soul of our coun­try. No one is go­ing to say that’s okay.”

Cham­bers ex­presses com­pas­sion for peo­ple caught us­ing or pos­sess­ing drugs, and freely ad­mits that the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem isn’t al­ways the best place for them. Like Bill English, he cites po­lice dis­cre­tion as be­ing part of a more mod­ern ap­proach. “A con­vic­tion can of­ten cause a long-term im­pact on some­one’s op­por­tu­nity, be it em­ploy­ment or travel. But the law is the law. More of­ten than not peo­ple take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their ac­tions, and putting them through the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily help them.

“We would rather see less harm caused, that they un­der­stand the rules and they re­spect them. And for that rea­son, that’s why we ex­er­cise dis­cre­tion. We take a com­mon-sense ap­proach in the way we en­force the law, but if some­one’s been caught be­fore and been for­mally warned be­fore, then you have to ask the ques­tion: well, re­ally? Per­haps send­ing them to court is the right thing to do. How many times do you have to take a stand be­fore they re­alise? Some­times peo­ple don’t help them­selves and then it’s them that makes the de­ci­sion.”

There are two sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems in the po­lice view on drugs: firstly they view them as evil and per­ni­cious and the de­sire to pun­ish peo­ple — as with many New Zealan­ders — runs deep. Se­condly, and where it’s eas­ier to have gen­uine sym­pa­thy for the po­lice, is that they are on the front­line of deal­ing with the crime and vi­o­lence caused by metham­phetamine and the peo­ple who con­trol the in­dus­try. The bash­ings, the kid­nap­pings, the bru­tal mur­ders, the un­rav­el­ling of peo­ple’s lives. But isn’t that one of the most co­gent and pow­er­ful ar­gu­ments for re­form? Surely it’s a kind of mad­ness to leave such a harm­ful bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try in the hands of peo­ple like the Head Hunters or the Mon­grel Mob, who, as Cham­bers says, are mo­ti­vated only by ra­pa­cious greed.

Where I find com­mon ground with Cham­bers is in his clearly gen­uine de­sire to al­le­vi­ate the harm po­lice see every day in our com­mu­ni­ties. But just like our politi­cians, po­lice re­sist un­der­stand­ing it is pro­hi­bi­tion that cre­ates the pre­con­di­tions for th­ese harms to oc­cur.

“It’s a shame that gangs choose to med­dle in the sup­ply and dis­tri­bu­tion of drugs for profit,” Cham­bers says. “They trade off other peo­ple’s mis­ery and ad­dic­tion to fur­ther their own in­ter­ests. Cer­tainly I have no sym­pa­thy for those who go to jail… We’ll not only hold them ac­count­able where we can for their in­volve­ment with drugs, but we’ll also take their as­sets in the process, and we’ll be do­ing more of it in the next few years.”

It’s clas­sic po­lice-speak. The road to hell is paved with good in­ten­tions.

The doyen of free-mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism, Mil­ton Fried­man, said: “If you look at the drug war from a purely eco­nomic point of view, the role of Govern­ment is to pro­tect the drug car­tels. That is lit­er­ally true.”

Metham­phetamine and other drugs are the fi­nan­cial oxy­gen that has al­lowed gangs like the Head Hunters to pros­per and grow, and they’ve done it all in the gar­den of pro­hi­bi­tion. Pro­hi­bi­tion cre­ates the risks that un­der­pin their enor­mous profit mar­gins and en­sures fail­ure to com­ply with their of­ten ar­bi­trary black-mar­ket rules will be met with vi­o­lence. Po­lice have of­ten ob­served that if some of our top gang mem­bers ap­plied them­selves to le­git­i­mate busi­ness, they would prob­a­bly do well. But there are few le­git­i­mate busi­nesses that come with high-level deal­ing’s ac­cess to cash, sex and street power. An hour af­ter my in­ter­view with Cham­bers, he sends me a New Zealand Her­ald ar­ti­cle on the seizure of se­nior Head Hunter Wayne Doyle’s al­leged $6 mil­lion-plus as­set base, mirac­u­lously ac­quired as a state ben­e­fi­ciary. Po­lice were serv­ing the war­rants as we spoke.

Po­lice now reg­u­larly seize cash and prop­erty such as houses, cars and boats un­der our Pro­ceeds of Crime leg­is­la­tion. They are ju­bi­lant about the power of this new weapon. But in­stead of the money be­ing used for treat­ment, re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, or ed­u­ca­tion, most of it ends up in the Govern­ment’s Con­sol­i­dated Fund.

Pro­hi­bi­tion en­trenches the gangs and their prof­its, en­sur­ing all the harm they cause con­tin­ues to prop­a­gate. Surely, the fastest way to de­prive them of their lifeblood is to change the game?

“This is where so­ci­ety fails to un­der­stand what pro­hi­bi­tion is,” says Bell. “Pro­hi­bi­tion is a pol­icy choice.

The Govern­ment has a range of pol­icy choices avail­able to them, and each of those choices brings dif­fer­ent out­comes. So when you’ve made the pol­icy choice as a Govern­ment to not take any con­trol over drugs, you then hand all of that con­trol to the black mar­ket. That’s what gov­ern­ments do when they say, we’re go­ing to stick with the Mis­use of Drugs Act 1975. That’s a pol­icy choice, to leave con­trol to the black mar­ket and the peo­ple in it. It’s in­san­ity. It’s some of the most in­sane pol­icy mak­ing.

“How do gangs con­trol their m mar­ket share? Through v vi­o­lence. So when t the po­lice raid gang h houses and they find drugs and g guns, you should not be sur­prised. T The guns are there as their en­force­ment. So if we’re wor­ried about guns, then again, that’s a con­se­quence of Govern­ment pol­icy choice.” Po­lice ad­mit that for every dealer they put away, some­one is stand­ing right be­hind them to take their place. And ul­ti­mately, as our drug seizure sta­tis­tics show, pro­hi­bi­tion does less than noth­ing to curb de­mand.

There are other pro­foundly neg­a­tive ef­fects of pro­hi­bi­tion. It stig­ma­tises drug use and drives it un­der­ground, cre­at­ing po­ten­tial health haz­ards. It puts peo­ple

Meth and other drugs are the fi­nan­cial oxy­gen that has al­lowed gangs like the Head Hunters to pros­per and grow.

in dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions if they wish to ac­quire drugs. There is no qual­ity con­trol on the type and strength of drug a user buys.

Pro­hi­bi­tion pro­vides the only set of cir­cum­stances where 20 peo­ple can die over three months from smok­ing syn­thetic “cannabis” cov­ered in fly spray and weed killer, and the Prime Min­is­ter tells the coun­try peo­ple need to take more per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Bell: “The peo­ple who are dy­ing are sleep­ing rough, they’re dis­con­nected, they’re out of work. I’m sure I’m go­ing to get shot for say­ing this, but if this was 10 kids from wealthy Auck­land fam­i­lies, the Govern­ment’s re­sponse would have been dif­fer­ent. Hand on heart, I be­lieve that to be true. If it wasn’t home­less peo­ple and it wasn’t young brown kids from

Glen Innes, if it was rich white kids from Re­muera? We’ve never seen stats like this be­fore, even around al­co­hol. We haven’t seen a clus­ter of drug-re­lated deaths like this and the Govern­ment’s re­sponse is per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity and the po­lice will sort this out. I’m lost for words.”

He’s an­gry at the politi­cians and oth­ers who sup­port the sta­tus quo. “Be­cause it is cre­at­ing harm. The pol­icy choice that they’ve all signed up for is cre­at­ing huge prob­lems for this coun­try.”

The of­ten-re­peated claim by politi­cians that “we need to get tough on the gangs” doesn’t with­stand log­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion. If we were re­ally se­ri­ous about get­ting tough on the gangs, we’d take away their pri­mary source of in­come and all the power they de­rive from it. The only ar­gu­ment I’ve heard against this ap­proach is that, “They’ll just find some­thing new to do.”

As Quince says, “Fuck­ing great. Let them. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Mean­while, the Govern­ment in­creases spend­ing to en­force our bro­ken laws. One of the largest items in this year’s Bud­get was $800 mil­lion for new prison beds. “Is that the only so­lu­tion to the Maori hous­ing cri­sis?” asks Quince. Bell says around 80 per cent of the Govern­ment’s re­sponse to the drug is­sue is through the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. It’s an ap­palling waste of money, demon­stra­bly in­ef­fec­tive, and se­nior po­lice are now ad­mit­ting off the record we’re not go­ing to ar­rest our way out of the P prob­lem. In­car­cer­a­tion doesn’t cure ad­dic­tion. For that, you need treat­ment and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, and ed­u­ca­tion about the dan­gers of drugs.

Johnny Dow, direc­tor at Auck­land res­i­den­tial drug and al­co­hol treat­ment cen­tre Higher Ground, has a per­ma­nent wait­ing list of 70 peo­ple. If he took peo­ple wait­ing to come from prison as well, it would be around 200. The wait to get in is at least 14 weeks. “Around 70 per cent of our pa­tients are ad­dicted to meth. They spend be­tween $300 and $6000 a week on their de­pen­dency — the av­er­age is about $2000. To sus­tain a habit at that level, a per­son has no choice but to be deal­ing or com­mit­ting other crime.”

Dow is quick to point out the ele­phant in the con­ver­sa­tion: Higher Ground deals only with the es­ti­mated 10 per cent of meth users who de­velop se­vere de­pen­dency. What the po­lice and the Govern­ment aren’t say­ing is that 90 per cent of the peo­ple who use drugs, even highly ad­dic­tive ones like metham­phetamine, will most likely never de­velop a prob­lem­atic de­pen­dency. They’re per­fectly ca­pa­ble of man­ag­ing their drug use in the same way most peo­ple are per­fectly ca­pa­ble of hav­ing one glass of wine with din­ner with­out need­ing to crack into the bour­bon at 8 o’clock the next morn­ing.

Dow says there is an ur­gent, des­per­ate need for more money in ad­dic­tion and treat­ment ser­vices. “If some­one has a se­vere de­pen­dency, they need res­i­den­tial care, they need some time out to get well. I know they need more out­pa­tient ser­vices avail­able, more fam­ily ther­apy avail­able. Of­ten it’s the fam­ily that are re­ally pulling their hair out with this as well. It’s a whole range of ser­vices we need to con­tinue to fund and get more money for, be­cause we just can’t keep up with it.” As well as not re­ceiv­ing any new fund­ing, when mea­sured against in­fla­tion over the past 10 years, it’s also taken a fund­ing cut of around 10 per cent.

So what are the costs? In­car­cer­a­tion costs us roughly $98,000 a year per in­mate. There has been a spec­tac­u­lar blowout in prison bud­gets every year since 2014, and an in­crease in pris­oner num­bers to just south of 10,000 in 2017. It’s hard to get re­li­able data, but a large num­ber of th­ese in­mates are in­side for drug or re­lated of­fend­ing. Jus­tice Min­is­ter Judith Collins was un­re­pen­tant about the cost over­runs, telling the Her­ald in 2016, “Peo­ple are in prison be­cause they should be in prison.” To­tal spend­ing in 2017 is marked to be $900 mil­lion.

Mean­while, the Nether­lands has de­cided to fo­cus on health rather than crim­i­nal jus­tice, with an em­pha­sis on treat­ment and work­ing with peo­ple in a ther­a­peu­tic way to ad­dress the rea­son for their of­fend­ing, in­clud­ing their de­pen­dence on sub­stances. Sue Pa­ton of Da­paanz, New Zealand’s as­so­ci­a­tion for ad­dic­tion treat­ment prac­ti­tion­ers, sup­ports this ap­proach. “This is much more ef­fec­tive at ad­dress­ing some­one’s ad­dic­tion, re­duc­ing their like­li­hood of com­mit­ting crimes, and en­abling them to re­turn suc­cess­fully to so­ci­ety much sooner.”

The Dutch closed 19 pris­ons in

2013 be­cause pris­oner num­bers had fallen af­ter pe­nal re­forms, in­clud­ing greater em­pha­sis on treat­ment and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. Five more pris­ons are be­ing con­sid­ered for clo­sure. So why does New Zealand think cre­at­ing more prison beds is still a good idea?

To build an­other green­fields fa­cil­ity like Higher Ground, which takes up to 52 res­i­dents, would cost only $12-14 mil­lion, with $4 mil­lion each year in run­ning costs. When ac­count­ing for the work Higher Ground does with pre-ad­mis­sions and out­pa­tients, it can help as many as 300 ad­dicts and their fam­i­lies at any one time. Vastly less ex­pen­sive than pris­ons, fa­cil­i­ties like Higher Ground are also proven to have in­fin­itely bet­ter re­sults. In the 14 weeks peo­ple are wait­ing for ad­mis­sion, un­less they’re ab­sti­nent, they will be us­ing sex work or crime to fund

their habits: deal­ing, bur­glar­ies, armed rob­beries, theft. “It’s the only way they can sur­vive,” Dow says.

Higher Ground’s re­turn on in­vest­ment is im­pres­sive: Dow says when to­tal costs are com­pared to the es­ti­mated ben­e­fits, the treat­ment-cen­tre pro­gramme cre­ates value of around $2 for every $1 spent in the pro­gramme. This equates to a re­turn on in­vest­ment of nine per cent a year. Later, Dow has his head of fi­nance for­ward me up­dated num­bers, in­creas­ing the re­turn by a fac­tor of three. That makes the cost ben­e­fit to so­ci­ety $6 for every $1 spent. De­spite fig­ures like this, cur­rent pol­icy is to put most of the money into a sys­tem that has failed for gen­er­a­tions, fi­nan­cially starv­ing pro­grammes that are proven to be ef­fec­tive.

Da­paanz doesn’t have a po­si­tion on le­gal­i­sa­tion. “We do, how­ever, strongly be­lieve that ad­dic­tion is a health is­sue,” says Pa­ton, “and that peo­ple have a right to the ac­cess of treat­ment and sup­port, and that this should take prece­dence over puni­tive mea­sures which are in­ef­fec­tive.”

But Bill English needs to wait for the “ev­i­dence” that chang­ing our crim­i­nal jus­tice ap­proach won’t cre­ate more harm.

The list of coun­tries re­form­ing their drug laws is con­tin­u­ally grow­ing, and all demon­strate pos­i­tive re­sults. The Nether­lands, Fin­land, Bo­livia, Uruguay, Colom­bia, even the arch ar­biter of the drug war, the United States. And Por­tu­gal, which re­formed its laws in 2001.

“Por­tu­gal is a truly holis­tic re­sponse to the drug prob­lem,” says Bell. “Lots of coun­tries have de­crim­i­nalised cannabis, but Por­tu­gal is a beau­ti­ful model be­cause they said this is a health is­sue, and not just for pot, but for heroin, for metham­phetamine, for co­caine. And we agree with that. So they de­crim­i­nalised all drugs and then at the same time put their money where their mouth was and com­mit­ted re­sources into pre­ven­tion, ed­u­ca­tion, re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. They pro­vide tax breaks for busi­nesses em­ploy­ing peo­ple in re­cov­ery. You look at the broad range of data out of Por­tu­gal, and it high­lights over­whelm­ingly what a fan­tas­tic model that has been, and how well that’s worked out for them.”

Politi­cians are al­ways say­ing “think of the chil­dren”, says Bell. “It’s their mantra. But if we do think of the chil­dren, then Por­tu­gal doesn’t crim­i­nalise their young drug users. The beauty of the Por­tuguese sys­tem is it changed the DNA of their so­ci­ety in terms of its ap­proach to drugs. It has re­moved all the stigma around prob­lem­atic drug use. More peo­ple are ac­cess­ing treat­ment. For the politi­cians who want us to think of the chil­dren? Youth drug use went down.”

The im­pact of the Por­tuguese re­forms has been ex­tra­or­di­nary. As well as youth drug use, adult use is also down, alarmist pro­pa­ganda about it ex­plod­ing hav­ing amounted to noth­ing. The num­ber of peo­ple im­pris­oned for drug-re­lated of­fences fell from 44 per cent of all in­mates in 1999 — two years be­fore the re­forms — to 21 per cent in 2012.

Mean­while, the num­ber of peo­ple treated for ad­dic­tion in­creased by 60 per cent be­tween 1998 and 2011, go­ing from 23,600 to 38,000. And drug-re­lated HIV in­fec­tions have fallen by more than 90 per cent since 2001.

Por­tu­gal’s re­forms aren’t a com­plete panacea to the coun­try’s drug prob­lems, but they are un­de­ni­ably a huge im­prove­ment on the sit­u­a­tion be­fore re­form.

Even Cham­bers is pre­pared to con­cede on Por­tu­gal: “It’s an ac­tive de­bate and not just here in New Zealand. Cer­tainly we will learn more about how other coun­tries go. Now we have the law as it is, and we’ll just con­tinue to work with that, and use our dis­cre­tion in cir­cum­stances where it’s the right thing to do.”

There’s a head­line from the Amer­i­can satir­i­cal site The Onion that reads, “Drugs win Drug War”, but the joke is re­ally on us. We’re pay­ing bil­lions in ac­tual and so­ci­etal costs to sup­port a sys­tem of pro­hi­bi­tion that has failed by all of its stated out­comes.

To bor­row from Shake­speare, it’s time for our politi­cians to screw their courage to the stick­ing place, and make mean­ing­ful re­forms to our drug laws. The in­jus­tice caused by our cur­rent sys­tem per­pet­u­ates a great moral wrong.

I’m not hope­ful of see­ing change with­out gen­uine public pres­sure. But one way to aid progress is to give the Govern­ment some plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity through a royal com­mis­sion or sim­i­lar task­force look­ing at the ac­tual ef­fects of our drug laws.

This is prob­a­bly the only kind of gov­ern­men­tal ve­hi­cle where the ex­pert voices will be taken se­ri­ously. It’s what the new Cam­paign for Drug Law Re­form is seek­ing. The terms of ref­er­ence must en­sure we find a bet­ter so­lu­tion than jail­ing or con­vict­ing peo­ple for mi­nor pos­ses­sion or use of drugs. The sta­tus quo is bro­ken be­yond re­pair. “The def­i­ni­tion of in­san­ity,” the quote goes, “is do­ing the same thing over and over again and ex­pect­ing a dif­fer­ent re­sult.”

Bell says there is now so much ev­i­dence to sup­port a new ap­proach that the onus must go on the sup­port­ers of the cur­rent sys­tem to demon­strate suc­cess. “Na­tional and Labour talk about send­ing mes­sages. No one’s hear­ing your mes­sage, be­cause 80 per cent of young New Zealan­ders have tried il­le­gal drugs. If you’re wor­ried about send­ing a mes­sage, fund drug ed­u­ca­tion.”

Por­tu­gal is a beau­ti­ful model... they said this is a health is­sue, not just for pot, but for heroin, metham­phetamine, co­caine.

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