Drug prohibition not solving anything

Last updated 10:27 14/02/2011
CANNABIS CO-OP: A Dutch city wants to grow it's cannabis in a co-operative.

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Illegal drugs make gangs bigger, richer and stronger, and overseas evidence shows that increasing law enforcement only inflates the situation. Drug prohibition is at the root of the problem, and drugs should be regulated instead.

OPINION: Police claims they have "smashed" attempts by Australian motorcycle gang the Rebels to set up shop and trade methamphetamine in New Zealand invoke memories of George W Bush years ago announcing "mission accomplished" in Iraq.

The war on drugs - like the Iraq conflict - continues to drag on, seemingly into perpetuity.

New Zealand police admit that, at best, they only ever intercept between 10 and 20 per cent of all drugs trafficked in the country, so this latest round of busts won't change a thing.

Speaking on Radio New Zealand several weeks ago, Canterbury University gang researcher Jarrod Gilbert said there was probably little authorities could now do to stop the Rebels group expanding here.

Gangs that gain power through violence and drug trafficking love prohibition because it's good for business and helps make them powerful.

Pragmatically, the fastest way to reduce a gang's ability to do this is by ending the laws that allow it to happen.

Prohibition works like steroids on organised crime groups, making for a potentially lethal combination that New Zealand doesn't need. Last year, the International Center for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP) found that, contrary to expectation, drug prohibition contributes to drug- market violence and higher rates of gun violence.

The report Effects of Drug Law Enforcement on Drug-Related Violence concluded that: "From an evidence-based public policy perspective and based on several decades of available data, the existing evidence strongly suggests that drug-law enforcement contributes to gun violence and high homicide rates and that increasingly sophisticated methods of disrupting organisations involved in drug distribution could unintentionally increase violence.

"Since drug prohibition has not achieved its stated goal of reducing drug supply, alternative models for drug control might need to be considered if drug-related violence is to be meaningfully reduced."

If the Rebels are involved in making and trafficking of illegal drugs, then it's no surprise they see our country as ripe for the picking: 400,000 adult Kiwis are current users of cannabis. In addition, New Zealand has the highest teenage drug use in the world - one result of our criminalisation policy that prohibits but does not prevent.

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As any alcohol marketing executive well knows, the teenage market is the ripest of them all; so if the Rebels consider our country a great business opportunity, then all thanks to prohibition.

Were our Government serious about keeping overseas organised crime out, it would regulate and control drugs rather than make them illegal.

The alternative - maintaining the prohibition status quo - is truly worrying. According to the ICSDP: "Research has shown that by removing key players from the lucrative illegal drug market, drug law enforcement may have the perverse effect of creating significant financial incentives for other individuals to fill this vacuum by entering the market."

New Zealand's drug markets are not new; they are well- established. Gilbert warned that rival gangs could be drawn into turf wars as the Rebels take their share of what's already here.

Police Minister Judith Collins should look at Mexico for a terrible example of turf warfare over drugs. Last year, there were 12,000 deaths there related to turf wars and government attacks on traffickers.

Recently, the former President of Mexico, Vincente Fox, called for the legalisation and regulation of the cannabis market, as an alternative to the appalling carnage in his country.

New Zealand's national drug policy rests on "three pillars" of harm minimisation: demand reduction, supply control, and problem limitation.

Given our high drug-use rates, demand reduction clearly isn't working. Police put their focus on reducing supply, but admit the drugs seized are only a fraction of what is produced.

Their attempts remain a perpetual game of cat and mouse, demanding greater time and resources, which must be pulled away from other crime.

In stark contrast, overseas experience demonstrates that policies that reverse prohibition are effective in reducing demand for drugs - particularly among young people.

In Portugal, where it hasn't been a crime to possess small amounts of any drug for personal use since 2001, drug use has declined 25 per cent among 13 to 15-year-olds, and 22 per cent among 16 to 18-year-olds.

In New Zealand between 1998 and 2001, the number of 15 to 17-year-olds who admitted using cannabis 10 or more times a month increased 300 per cent.

A year ago, Prime Minister John Key told Paul Holmes: "I don't think you can eradicate drugs from your community . . . any politician who tells you they can do that is either being dishonest or a bit deluded."

Key is absolutely right, and the Government needs to understand that a regulated, adults-only, taxable market for cannabis and other low-risk drugs is the safest alternative for our future.

* Stephen McIntyre is the president of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML NZ).

- The Press


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