Tuesday 18 August 2009

Police agitprop [updated]

The New Zealand Police reports that $379 million in social harm was avoided in their latest anti-marijuana campaign in which 140,000 marijuana plants were destroyed. So each marijuana plant is associated with about $2700 in social harm. Amazing. If you think that a shonky economic consultancy firm was involved in setting up the numbers on which this was based, you'd be right.

A quick scan of BERL's drug harm index suggests that, for marijuana, roughly half of the tallied social costs are the costs of producing marijuana. So police destroying marijuana crops saves the social cost of growing marijuana crops. Except that it doesn't: the growers obviously already had incurred a fair portion of their production costs. Next, roughly a third of the total costs come from the court system: police, courts, prisons, and lost output from those incarcerated for marijuana. So the police operation saved us the costs of police operations.

There's no point in doing a thorough fisking of BERL's drug harm index. It looks every bit as shonky as their report on alcohol, and their only defense will wind up being world view, and the folks who care more about useful agitprop than about sound statistics will keep citing their numbers.

It's depressing that our government commissions cost reports that are only useful as agitprop.


Update: The BERL report even warns against using the drug harm index as a measure of harms avoided by police operations!
The NZDHI does not directly measure harm avoided by seizures but rather harm that could be avoided had illicit drugs never been introduced to society. Drug seizures will not avoid all of the harm generated by drugs. For example, Customs or NZP operations divert in order to carry out drug seizures. These resources would not have been diverted if drugs had never been introduced, but they are diverted as a result of drug seizures. The NZDHI incorporates the value of Customs and NZP time spent on these activities, but these costs result from drug seizures rather than being prevented by them. Applied analyses of interventions, such as a cost-benefit analysis, are an appropriate way to measure avoidable harm.
p. 49.
You can't blame the police for being too confused though, as BERL also writes:
The Index captures the social costs potentially avoided by drug seizures in a given year in constant dollar terms.
p. 46

Odds that BERL will correct Detective Senior Sergeant Scott McGill? Oh, right.
As with anything that enters the public domain, it is the consumer’s right to interpret it as they see fit and for them to take responsibility for their reaction to it, not for the author to manage their response to it.


  1. God, I hope the cops aren't going to commandeer the new NH-90 Helos with their much higher operating costs for these pointless operations. Please leave the expensive, high-tech military vechicles for, you know...the military.

  2. Eric: you'll have to be more accurate in your postings. I think you'll find that it was not $379 million in social harms, but actually $379,024,920.

    You see, this figure is so precise at capturing the exact social harms that it can be calculated to the nearest $10.


  3. @hefevice: their doing so would only increase the measured social costs of drugs. I was totally with Nandor in his opposition to some of the asset forfeiture provisions; in the US, these provisions help fund police buying the military vehicles...

    @Philip: awesome.

  4. Gah, this always pisses me off... what a total waste of public resources. Reminds me of headlines from the US - where, when you break down the numbers, the so called "street value" the police provide comes out to outright absurd figures per plant.

  5. The public equation of harms, in order to justify its existence is malfeasance. National Drug Intelligence (for whom incompetance is no excuse) has never accounted for cost/benefit delivery of services. The drug interdiction budget is an unaccounted deficit funded bottomless pit. If the same rules were to apply to 'road safety' every speeding ticket would be worth thousands.