Dollars, sense of drug law reform
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.’’