Editorial: Case for drug law reform is serious

Last updated 05:00 15/02/2010

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OPINION: The Government's quick dismissal of the bulk of the Law Commission's work on drug use in New Zealand is regrettable.

Its unpalatability for the Government – and, no doubt, for many others – comes in its recommendation for flexibility when dealing with small-scale dealing and personal possession for use, and for less emphasis on conviction and punishment. The flip side of that is a recommendation for a greater focus on treatment, prevention and education.

It is easy to understand why Justice Minister Simon Power shied away from that. The issue is a political minefield, one Mr Power sidestepped by advising the commission "that I have other things on my work agenda".

However, it is also clear that the current drug laws are failing. No more evidence of that is needed than the survey suggesting 15 per cent of New Zealanders broke the law and used cannabis in the last year – higher than the numbers for the United States, Australia or any European country.

The report has been a long time in the making, and is comprehensive. It was started in 2007 when the Labour government invited the commission to review the Misuse of Drugs Act. As the commission points out, the drug environment now is very different from when the act was passed in the 1970s "when the hippie counterculture was at its height and the illegal drugs of choice were cannabis, cocaine, opiates and psychedelics like LSD".

Now party pills such as BZP and more harmful drugs such as metamphetamine have been added to the mix.

The cost to New Zealand is high. A Berl study issued last year put the cost of the use of harmful drugs – other than alcohol – at $1.58 billion.

That included an attempt to count the cost of intangibles, such as pain and suffering, but there are limits to how successful that can be. How, for example, can the destructive effect that drugs have on relationships and families be costed?

On top of that, there is the conundrum over how much of the damage and cost caused by illegal drugs is the result of their being illegal, rather than their inherent dangers.

And then there is the comparison with what the commission describes as the "typically understated and misunderstood" harms and costs associated with alcohol. By comparison, it says the harms and costs "associated with illegal drugs are often generalised and overblown".

The commission has not skated lightly over the dangers of currently illegal drugs. It points to evidence of a connection between cannabis and mental illnesses including schizophrenia, and of the risks of metamphetamine use.

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It has stressed that there must be a vigorous law enforcement focus on large-scale commercial dealing in drugs covered by international conventions. It deserves to be taken seriously.

Mr Power may well be right to reject the commission's approach. However, the onus is now on him to come up with a more plausible alternative. What New Zealand now has is clearly not working.

- The Dominion Post

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