Friday 26 March 2010

Misuse of Drugs Act Panel Discussion

Yesterday's panel discussion with Law Commissioner Warren Young and Professors Newbold and Young was fun. The 40-odd audience seemed broadly supportive of ending the war on drugs.

I was left with the impression of a Law Commission tightly hemmed in by what it views as our international obligations and the political constraints of a socially conservative and status-quo biased current administration.

I'd take an alternative view in the Law Commission's place. Given that National is completely unlikely to do anything that might possibly be viewed as relaxing any of our current laws, the final Law Commission report should stop worrying about the political constraint. Instead, it should issue a two-part report.

The first part would deal with housekeeping matters surrounding the current legislation: anomalies in the rank-order scheduling of different substances that have Ecstasy treated far too harshly relative to other substances; allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes and implementing a regulatory structure to prevent leakage from the medical market to the recreational market. As we currently allow doctors to prescribe otherwise proscribed opioids, there's no particular reason marijuana couldn't be brought under the same kind of regulation.

The second part wouldn't be written for the current National government but rather for longer term change: it should be addressed to the intelligent public and serve as the basis for the next decade's arguments over the effectiveness of prohibition relative to other regimes. It should deal seriously with the costs of prohibition, the extent to which the harms associated with drugs are due to prohibition, and alternative structures that would do more to minimize overall harms. It might even move beyond harm minimization to consider welfare maximization, which would weigh the benefits of consumption for those who do enjoy such consumption.

It could even go further to discuss some ways that legalization might be effected despite our international obligations. While we may be constrained to keeping certain substances illegal, nothing in the international agreements specifies the level of resources that must be devoted to the war on drugs (or, at least that was Professor Young's understanding).

So a future, more sensible, government could, for example, have a conversation with the New Zealand Police encouraging different districts to try innovative policing measures to reduce property and violent crime rates; drug interdiction efforts would not be a key performance indicator. If drug interdiction is helpful in reducing violent and property crime, then leave the districts to try it, but if other districts are able better to reduce property and violent crime rates by redirecting resources from drug busts to other policing, or even by trying something like Hamsterdam, well, that would be something that might well wind up being recommended as best practice sometime down the line. They could even go so far as to promise to help districts wanting to go that route by providing public health and treatment services in those areas for those who need it. Drug use would remain illegal, but not an enforcement priority. No more pats on the head for Staff Sergeants announcing their latest marijuana busts; instead, they'd be asked to show how the bust has affected the crime rates the government cares about.

There is no point in trying to convince the current government of anything on this front. John Key wouldn't change his tie if he thought it might hurt him in the polls, nevermind liberalize our drug laws. The argument instead has to be addressed to the voters and to the chattering classes that help to shape public opinion. Lay out the evidence - there's lots of it - then put it in the kinds of stories folks can easily understand.

If we only get reviews like this every 35 years or so, it would be an utter waste to have the review spend all its time addressing an audience with its fingers plugged firmly in its ears. If there were a chance of compromise with an unfriendly but reasonable government, then there'd be good argument for a document that pulled its punches in hopes of achieving some change now. But the current government isn't reasonable. The Law Commission should instead be addressing the government we might have in ten years time, and the voters who might help to take us there.


  1. This is the right way forward. Just blindly doing bust operation without any effect is just useless..

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  2. I like your two-pronged approach Eric, seems to make good sense. Agree that the current govt unlikely to move on this issue, but we had several terms under a supposedly left-leaning Labour govt propped up by the Greens, and no moves other than a farcical public consultation process. Sadly, I'd be very surprised if we see any real courage from govt on this issue in our lifetimes. You'd think at the very least the strong economic arguments would sway a govt to at least trial a decriminalisation strategy, but I'm guessing this would be a considerable barrier to certain free trade agreements...

  3. Lats, (Andrew?)

    We've signed international agreements saying we'll keep things illegal, but we've never said what fraction of police resources must be devoted to enforcement....