Cultivating voters on relaxing NZ's drug laws

by The Listener / 06 July, 2017
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Around the world, science and public policy experience increasingly support a ceasefire in the “war” on drugs. Drug use is proven to be better curtailed if decriminalised and treated as a health issue.

If only some politicians and activists would resist using the implied – and necessary – liberalisation message as a lure for young voters.

Five of the nine significant political parties in this election favour liberalisation, at least for cannabis: the Greens, United Future, the Maori Party, Act and the Opportunities Party (Top). Other countries and federal states have demonstrated public-good outcomes from combinations of decriminalisation and state regulation. And it is certainly true that the long-standing orthodoxy of punishing possession and use and outlawing supply has failed to curtail either drug-taking and its many harms or organised crime’s profits from enabling it.

The New Zealand police tacitly acknowledge this with an unofficial policy of not prosecuting for possession of modest amounts of cannabis. This is sensible: first, in not penalising people who do no harm and, second, in avoiding criminalising the young whose futures are blighted by a drug conviction. Thus we have de facto decriminalisation, and it’s heartening to see political consensus building towards making this official.

But decriminalisation by itself does nothing to address the health issues of cannabis use or the malign criminal element.

The experience of Portugal and other jurisdictions that have slashed drug use and addiction is that drug-taking declines markedly and the health of users is greatly improved when the state controls and administers recreational drugs under medical supervision. The role of criminal gangs all but disappears.

What’s starkly absent from reform platforms here is robust planning for how to protect the young after decriminalisation. It’s beyond scientific dispute that cannabis can retard brain development, and it remains a risk up to the age of 25 or 26, when most people’s prefrontal cortex reaches maturity.

Pro-reform parties intone worthily about information and education, but unless liberalisation is coupled with effective deterrents to and penalties for the supply of cannabis to anyone under 25, decriminalisation will be guaranteed to increase harm.

Top’s decriminalisation pledge came after it researched issues that might engage young voters. By implication, it appears happy to give the young better access to a drug that does them provable harm just for their votes.

The party has now topped even this level of cynicism by vowing to raise the drinking age to 20. Thus alcohol – which, if used moderately, does not cause harm – would be further restricted under Top, whereas cannabis, which if used even moderately by the young does cause harm, will be made more available to them.

Mana Party leader Hone Harawira further derailed evidence-based debate with a call for the execution of Chinese traffickers of methamphetamine. The implication that only Chinese people are culpable for the meth menace is both racist and wildly inaccurate.

Peter Dunne now advocates we follow Portugal’s state-controlled, medically supervised system with respect to the less-harmful drugs. This is wise counsel, but as the minister who presided over our disastrous experiment with so-called legal highs – the oft-dangerous and increasingly potent synthetic drugs of ever-morphing formulation – he is a poor opinion leader. Under the regime he designed – since heavily modified – more young people used drugs than before, reassured that as synthetics were now legal, they were safer.

Even the factually rigorous Drug Foundation can skew debate, when it labours the harm-minimisation message at the expense of highlighting the ineradicable harm of drug use. It tested a variety of black-market drugs and found about a third contained extraneous or risky substances or were not what suppliers had claimed. Although useful for users, this exercise risked conveying the message that drugs not “cut” or mislabelled are safe. For young people, they are not.

There’s growing evidence that the only way to ensure the safety of recreational drugs is to nationalise their manufacture and supply. It’s unlikely that either the public or Parliament is ready for this, even though it would give the state the framework with which to keep far more young people safe from the impairment of drugs until they’re old enough to make smart choices.

For the parties advocating the halfway house of decriminalisation, their continued use of drug liberalisation as a vote-lure for the young remains irresponsible and cynical. 

This article was first published in the July 13, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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