Pubdate: Wed, 05 Nov 2014
Source: New Zealand Herald (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2014 New Zealand Herald
Author: Brian Rudman
Page: A37


A new United Kingdom government study on the relationship between 
harsh punishments and recreational drug use underlines how 
wrong-headed New Zealand parliamentarians were earlier this year to 
abandon their brave experiment to establish a regulated market for 
approved synthetic "highs".

In a study of the drug laws of 11 countries, New Zealand included, 
the report concludes that punitive regimes like those in Britain and 
New Zealand have no impact on drug use. As Liberal Democrat Minister 
of State for Crime Prevention Norman Baker pointed out, "banging 
people up and increasing sentences does not stop drug use".

Suppressed for six months, says Mr Baker, because it was embarrassing 
to his Tory coalition partners, the report demolishes 40 years of 
what he refers to as "lazy assumptions" that "if you have harsher 
penalties it will reduce drug use".

The Home Office researchers don't beat around the bush. "We did not 
in our factfinding observe any obvious relationship between the 
toughness of a country's enforcement against drug possession and 
levels of drug use in that country.

"The Czech Republic and Portugal have similar approaches to 
possession, where possession of small amounts of any drug does not 
lead to criminal proceedings, but while levels of drug use in 
Portugal appear to be relatively low . . . cannabis use in the Czech 
Republic are among the highest in Europe."

In Sweden, which has one of the toughest approaches, there was 
"relatively low levels of use, but not markedly lower than countries 
with different approaches".

It noted that while drug use increased in Portugal following 
decriminalisation in 2001, from 2007 "use of most drugs has since 
fallen to below 2001 levels". It added that "one of the clearest 
changes in Portugal since 2001 has been a considerable improvement in 
the indicators of health outcomes for drug users". Also, the 
proportion of drug-related offenders in the prison system fell from 
44 per cent in 1999 to 21 per cent in 2008.

None of this is new. You only have to sniff the air in party areas of 
any New Zealand town to know the ban on cannabis, added into a 1927 
law aimed at Chinese opium smokers who, it was feared, used opium to 
seduce white maidens, has not worked.

In 2011, the Law Commission's review of the Misuse of Drugs Act noted 
that 400,000 Kiwis broke the cannabis law every year. Many regularly. 
It said the police spent 598,000 hours fighting the war on drugs at 
an estimated cost of more than $100 million annually. In 2009, 
personal possession and use offences made up 69 per cent of the 
25,000 drug offences recorded by the police. Another report records 
that 16 per cent of the prison population are inside for drug-related crimes.

No doubt drug abuse can cause harm, as does smoking and drinking 
alcohol to excess. But as the UK study underlines, criminalising 
users does not deter. It just costs the state a huge amount in extra 
policing and court costs. It also quotes University of Essex research 
estimating a criminal record could result in a 19 per cent reduction 
in average earnings for those convicted.

In July last year, our parliamentarians, in a brief moment of common 
sense, acknowledged the war was lost and voted 119-1 to create a 
regulated market for approved synthetic recreational drugs.

Admittedly, it was just a first step. It sidestepped the much larger 
existing underground recreational drugs market. But at least it 
acknowledged that with the exploding trade in synthetic "cannabis" 
and other such psychoactive drugs, a new approach was needed.

But in May this year, with the market yet to be established, the 
parliamentarians lost their nerve. A few well-publicised "bad trips" 
and the Government rushed through a bill banning the "low-risk" highs 
that had been allowed to remain on sale temporarily until the new 
system was in place. Also banned was any animal testing under the new 
regime, throwing the future of the new system into further doubt.

What they did, in effect, was drive the synthetic high industry 
underground to join cannabis and the other more dangerous drugs. Yet 
as the latest UK report underlines, criminalising it won't remove it 
from the scene. What would is decriminalising cannabis, which has 
been used for thousands of years and is known to be safe. Certainly 
safer than the experimental synthetic drugs.
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