Dol­lars, sense of drug law re­form

Taranaki Daily News - - News -

As Green MP Chloe Swar­brick points out, there is a cer­tain hypocrisy in MPs who have used drugs pre­sid­ing over ar­chaic drug laws. But if the moral or health­based ar­gu­ments fail to per­suade them and us, per­haps the eco­nomic ones will.

The NZ Drug Foun­da­tion, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Matua Raki and the Nee­dle Ex­change, com­mis­sioned econ­o­mist Shamubeel Eaqub, of Sense Part­ners, to an­a­lyse the costs and ben­e­fits of de­crim­i­nal­is­ing the use and pos­ses­sion of all drugs, le­gal­is­ing cannabis and in­vest­ing more ef­fec­tively in preven­tion, ed­u­ca­tion, harm re­duc­tion and treat­ment.

The foun­da­tion starts from the premise that the crim­i­nal-jus­tice ap­proach, usu­ally dubbed the war on drugs, is not work­ing.

This is far from a con­tro­ver­sial po­si­tion in 2018. Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern and for­mer prime min­is­ter He­len Clark, in her new role with the Global Com­mis­sion on Drug Pol­icy, are among the scores of main­stream politi­cians who have spo­ken of the value of a health-based ap­proach over a crim­i­nal one.

As Sense Part­ners says in the re­port re­leased this week, the world is mov­ing on. At least 15 coun­tries have de­crim­i­nalised the per­sonal pos­ses­sion of all drugs and more than 30 have some form of de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion. Por­tu­gal fa­mously de­crim­i­nalised drug use in 2001. Eight US states have le­galised cannabis and Canada has be­gun sell­ing it for non-med­i­cal per­sonal use.

Peo­ple will take drugs no mat­ter what the law says. The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion found in 2008 that ‘‘coun­tries with strin­gent user-level il­le­gal drug poli­cies did not have lower lev­els of use than coun­tries with lib­eral ones’’. The re­port says ‘‘wish­ing drug use away – by ban­ning it, rather than ac­cept­ing many peo­ple use drugs re­gard­less – doesn’t work. Worse, ex­pos­ing peo­ple who use drugs to the crim­i­nal world and pris­ons be­cause of drug use, or not pro­vid­ing suf­fi­cient help with com­plex health and so­cial is­sues, can lead to fur­ther com­pound­ing prob­lems. Drug use is wide­spread across so­ci­ety, but harm can of­ten be con­cen­trated among so­cially dis­ad­van­taged groups.’’

Eaqub found the full im­ple­men­ta­tion of the health-based ap­proach pro­moted by the NZ Drug Foun­da­tion would not just pay for it­self but even re­turn a fi­nan­cial ben­e­fit. The de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of all drugs would save $34 mil­lion-$83m a year, mostly by cut­ting crim­i­nal jus­tice costs. If law re­form was limited to just the le­gal­i­sa­tion of cannabis, New Zealand would save $10m-$53m.

These are mod­est sums, out­weighed by the ex­tra $159m per year the Drug Foun­da­tion be­lieves we need to spend on harm re­duc­tion, ad­dic­tion treat­ment and ed­u­ca­tion. Over­seas mod­els say that would de­liver wider so­cial ben­e­fits of $244m. But the head­line fig­ure is the po­ten­tial for ex­tra tax rev­enue. Le­gal reg­u­la­tion of the grow­ing and sell­ing of cannabis would con­ser­va­tively bring in $185m-$240m in tax. De­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion alone could not pay for ex­tra health and ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices. It would take cannabis le­gal­i­sa­tion, as in the US and Cana­dian model, to do that.

It makes ra­tio­nal sense but there is also pol­i­tics to con­sider. While even the Green Party and Act are united in see­ing the ben­e­fits of a cannabis tax take, NZ First is adamant the pub­lic must de­cide in a ref­er­en­dum. If that hap­pens, this anal­y­sis has given the pub­lic plenty of per­ti­nent in­for­ma­tion.

‘‘The foun­da­tion starts from the premise that the crim­i­nal-jus­tice ap­proach, usu­ally dubbed the war on drugs, is not work­ing. This is far from a con­tro­ver­sial po­si­tion in 2018.’’

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