Drugs: We’re doing it wrong

by Lord Sutch

Ampule and syringe.New Zealand isn’t strictly speaking part of the United States’ War on Drugs, but if we had to pick a side, it would probably be theirs. We’ve steadily been heading down a path similar to that taken by the US. Under the Labour Government (1999-2008), there were on average 12,252 convictions for Illicit Drug offences each year. Since National took the levers of power, that average has increased by over a thousand a year, to 13,532 (source). We need to rethink our stance on narcotics. It is an absurd state of affairs that the possession of small quantities (five grams) of some drugs can be punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

We have seen some improvement with the recent Psychoactive Substances Act which helps us regulate the ‘legal highs’, but what about the less legal highs?

It seems apparent that drugs should be decriminalised. And I don’t just mean so called soft drugs, I mean all of them. From pot to ecstasy, cocaine to heroin, even P. When I think about this logically, I cannot figure out an argument to maintain the illegal status drugs currently enjoy. For example:

1. You’ll create more people who use drugs

As counterintuitive as it seems, the reverse of this is true. In Portugal, all drugs were decriminalised in 2001 because of frighteningly high rates of HIV from shared needle use. Drug consumption went down. No longer under threat of prosecution, people who use drugs came forward to get medical help. The (admittedly libertarian) Cato Group’s study into the “Portugal experiment” makes fascinating reading.

2. Health costs will skyrocket with more people who use drugs

Even though usage went down in Portugal, let’s suppose that more people did take drugs; under a regulated government-controlled system you would have two solutions. Firstly, quality control. If drugs were sold from a pharmacy then the quality could be tightly maintained. People who use drugs wouldn’t have to be concerned with purchasing drugs laced with god-knows-what, so surprise overdosages would stop. And if people ingested too much and ended up in the hospital, the health system would be better funded from the taxation collected on drugs. The state would also save huge amounts of money that had hitherto gone into policing the drug trade. So on the one hand you save money, while on the other hand you’re earning more. It’s win-win. A lot of this money could be poured into treatment for addiction, helping those poor individuals who were addicted.

In Portugal, rates of HIV infection among people who use drugs fell an unbelievable 17%, while drug related deaths dropped by half following decriminalisation.

3. There will be children overdosing in the streets

Decriminalising drugs doesn’t mean selling them to 14 year olds at the school tuck shop. It means making them a strictly taxed, regulated and age-controlled product, like tobacco and alcohol. I’m not so naive to think this would stop underaged people from getting it, but it certainly couldn’t make it any worse – children already have access to marijuana.

And think of the education programmes you could run! Instead of the “don’t do drugs mmmkay” stuff we currently teach our kids, we could focus on harm-minimisation: “if you’re going to do it, here’s how you can keep yourself safe”. Very few students stay away from drugs because their teachers tell them, or because they are illegal. They stay away because drugs just aren’t for them. That won’t change.

I’m sure there are other arguments people have against this move, but I’m yet to meet one that can’t be successfully countered. There are major positives too – for example, we’d be denying criminal gangs a significant source of income. We’d also create a productive new industry, legitimate jobs and tax revenue. You probably wouldn’t be able to export drugs, but it may have beneficial flow-on effects for the country as a tourism destination.

It’s not a move likely to happen anytime soon, but it would be nice if we could at least have a grown up discussion about it. What do you think? Am I over simplifying a way too complicated issue, or are we missing a golden opportunity?

Edit: The NZ Drug Foundation has been in touch to give us some more information:

This is their thoughts on drug legislation, and they say it with a lot more gravitas.

They also say this is a better view of Portugal than the Cato one we cited (you’ll need to register to see it).

Seriously, visit the Drug Foundation website. It is a fantastic organisation.



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Theo August 30, 2013 - 11:43 am

First of all the author seems to confuse decriminalisation with legalisation.
When something is decriminalised it is still illegal – it just means you won’t be thrown in prison for doing it.

And as far as legalising cocaine and heroin – what would be the probative value in that? Hardly anyone (if anyone at all) uses those drugs in this country as it is. If you we’re to legalise them it could only increase the number of users (and thus number of over-dosers) as far as I can see.

As far as health costs not increasing, for the government to regulate and ensure “strict quality control” of drugs would cost money. The policing issue certainly wouldn’t evaporate.
And it seems hugely presumptuous to think that drug taxes would fund the health system.

As for focusing on harm-minimisation education for kids, that hardly seems to work with alcohol, so I don’t really see how that would work for drugs.

Drugs are bad and they destroy lives. To legalise can only encourage use. Decriminalisation is probably the way to go – where people who are caught doing drugs are given help rather than thrown in jail.

Lord Sutch
Lord Sutch August 30, 2013 - 12:05 pm

Hi Theo, thanks for your comment. It’s good thoughtful stuff.

To your first point about confusing decriminalisation and legalisation, I understand the difference: under decriminalisation there still exist civil penalties, rather than criminal penalties. However this isn’t detrimental to the rest of the arguments, because people who are “arrested” for using drugs aren’t stigmatised as “drug criminals” which is a major problem with the current system.

You ask what the point of legalising cocaine or heroin would be because “hardly anyone uses those drugs in this country”. Well I’m not sure how legalising (decriminalising) would change that. The Portuguese study I linked to shows that usage of hard drugs actually decreases over time.

You’re right that the policing issues wouldn’t evaporate because there’d be regulatory control which would need to be monitored. However this monitoring would be considerably less expensive than policing individual users. You would monitor the drugs at production level, rather than street level requiring far less resource. Why is it presumptuous to assume that drug taxes would fund the health system?

It’s pretty conclusive that harm minimisation works much better than abstinence education. I didn’t think there was much doubt, but I can dig some research out if you’d like?

As I said above, legalising doesn’t encourage use. It just means we’re not creating criminals out of people who have health issues.

Alejos August 30, 2013 - 1:27 pm

Making something illegal that there is already an existing demand for only creates a black market for that item. When you create a black market for an item, then you put both those who use it and sell it on the wrong side of the law, while also creating the need to spend money (a hell of a lot of money) to police, arrest, litigate against, and incarcerate those people. When you do this, you also create lots of systems and agencies that are more than happy to spend this money; agencies that get a CRAP TON of federal, state, and local money for equipment, infrastructure, and payroll. One might even say that these agencies have a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo so that they can continue to get this money which always seems to increase, even though the demand for illegal drugs never seems to decrease regardless of how much we throw at the “problem”.
I have never tried nor believe I would ever try heroin, even if it was to somehow become legal; but I guarantee I could get my hands on some if I wanted to and in less than half an hour. The same goes for anyone, children included. No drug dealer in the history of ever has ever ID’d a customer. And speaking of drug dealers, what do they do to ensure steady supply of product and real estate to sell that product? They sure aren’t paying rent on those street corners. What do a great deal of the shooting deaths in America have in common? Drugs. How do gangs get money to buy their guns? Drugs. How do they attract thousands of susceptible young minds to forego a free education for the allure of quick money and everything that goes with it? Drugs. Legalizing all drugs would deal a HUGE blow to the black market and almost instantly stop all violence related to it. What is the cause of all the violence near the border of Mexico? Access to and control of the best drug corridors into the states.
Would one expect there to be a slight rise in the use of hard drugs initially? Probably, but that is far from a surety at this point. Would it be easier or harder for kids to gain access to hard drugs if they were legal? Would hard drugs be safer or more dangerous if legalized? How many people die each year from overdosing on illicit drugs compared to the hundreds of THOUSANDS who die from taking prescribed drugs AS DIRECTED each year? Are we maybe overplaying the danger of these hard drugs in an attempt to keep people from trying them for themselves and making a decision. After all, it’s for their own good, right? Is it morally wrong/corrupt to take hard drugs in the first place?
Alcohol is highly addictive, yet it remains not only legal, but celebrated in many ways, the same for tobacco. Try counting up the deaths per year related to either of those! but for some reason those are fine to be legal, otherwise how would we cut loose on the weekends? Legalizing drugs just makes too much sense to ever happen because people let themselves be controlled by unfounded fear far too easily. EVERYONE WILL BECOME DRUG ADDICTS OVERNIGHT!!! ALL THE KIDS WILL DO ALL OF THE DRUGS!!!!!
Ugh….I need a drink.

Lord Sutch
Lord Sutch August 30, 2013 - 1:41 pm

Good rant A++ and largely agree with what you said.

I don’t however think that “alcohol is just as bad/worse so therefore we should legalise X” is a cogent argument. However, you gave plenty of good arguments for decriminalisation.

The Ruminator :: Drugs: We’re doing it wrong | That Girl, Fae September 12, 2013 - 2:21 pm

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