Hazy thinking on drug use

Politicians should be wary of sending confusing signals about drugs.

When Palmerston North MP Iain Lees-Galloway says drug laws are failing, he likely means one of two things.

1. There are so many people caught and punished that it's clear the system is failing to discourage people from taking drugs.

2. Drug-taking per se is not a serious evil requiring the state's official condemnation.

These are his words: "Offending related to drug use such as violence, theft, driving under the influence of drugs etcetera should of course be dealt with as criminal matters, but the substance abuse itself is symptomatic of addiction and matters that are better dealt with in the health system."

It's a bit like making an argument that armed robbery should be dealt with by the courts, but possession of an offensive weapon should be erased as a criminal offence. Possession of an offensive weapon is a trivial matter that need not concern the police, it might be argued.

It's not immediately apparent how society benefits from such an approach, unless gun education, or indeed drug education, is brought into the mix.

Mr Lees-Galloway argues the regulatory system for drugs should be built on the premise that "drug abuse is a health issue, not a justice issue".

And the Law Commission suggests making changes to the regulation of drugs possession, but not changing the rules around their supply, he notes. Possession should not be a criminal offence, in other words.

The law should not come down hard on people whose only crime is addiction to a substance, Mr Lees-Galloway suggests.

He ignores a few realities here.

Before there is drug abuse, there is drug use that the user thinks is not too harmful. Before users know it, they are in over their heads. That's how addiction works.

The best way to prevent addiction is to check it at the earliest sign of a problem.

One way to prevent harm is to discourage substance use in the first place - expensive treatment programmes for abuse are no match for this. Why would a responsible state wait for the use to turn into abuse before getting serious?

A powerful way of sending a message that drug-taking is a poor choice is to make it against the law.

How many people do not consume illegal substances simply because they are illegal?

This preventive medicine seems not to have made it into Mr Lees-Galloway's calculations about the effectiveness of the law.

His true point is presumably that the health system would do a better job of getting lives back on track than the justice system does, though it's not clear why he thinks the justice system's role should be watered down.

Another reality is that drugs and crime go hand in hand.

The most telling statement in the past week came from the Ministry of Justice.

Ninety-five per cent of offenders sent to prison after being convicted of charges such as possession of drugs or utensils had at the same time been convicted of other more serious crimes, the ministry pointed out. That rather makes a lie of the artificial distinctions some politicians and lawyers like to make.

I'm not sure Mr Lees-Galloway has thought things through.

If he plans to be consistent in applying the philosophy he seems to be espousing, perhaps he might also advocate relaxing transport law. The only person who will be harmed if I don't wear a seatbelt is me, I might argue. True, the health system may have to pick up the pieces of my avoidable injuries, but my lack of seatbelt wearing should be a health issue, not a criminal one.

But that's not a great analogy. Anyone even slightly familiar with the ramifications of drug abuse knows they can stretch well beyond the people directly concerned.

A better analogy might be - let's get rid of speed limits and call them merely guides for good driving. Now, if respect for the law and fear of being caught are the only things that prevent other drivers and me from speeding, what will be the effect on public health if that law is changed?

From a health perspective, the real questions about drug use may be these. Why do people feel the need to dull pain? Why do they think drugs will fill their happiness vacuum?

Clearly, they have become used to an instant-gratification mindset.

Yes, addiction needs to be treated seriously, but a soft approach to drugs and justice could end up in more people being trapped.

The city's MP is presumably uncomfortable about characterising initial choices about drug use as a moral call between right and wrong. But it appears he is arguing for state indifference about possession of drugs - a situation where drug users cannot help but pick up the underlying message that drug-taking is OK so long as it doesn't get out of hand.

Let's not be nuanced. Drugs are harmful and it is a naive state that sends confusing signals to citizens.

* Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard's head of content and a politics junkie.

Manawatu Standard