Heather Roy

2 May 2018

If you want different results, you have to try different approaches.

I’ve attended two conferences recently about National Security. New Zealand doesn’t have a National Security Strategy or a National Security Advisor as many of our friends and allies do. The first conference was New Zealand’s Second National Security Conference run by Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies. The second was run by the Victoria University Centre for Strategic Studies, and focused on New Zealand’s Maritime Security Environment. Both highlighted the need for a coherent strategy and my business partner Simon Ewing-Jarvie has summarized the proceedings from both conferences well here and on his UNCLAS blog.

Both conferences had speakers who focused on the challenges and threats of drug trafficking as a significant National Security issue. Currently New Zealand pours vast resources into attempting to contain the importation of drugs and precursor substances, but no work is being done on the economics of tackling the problem of drug abuse as a health issue. The cost of illicit drugs in New Zealand are amongst the highest in the world, the gangs are heavily involved in the drug trade and increasingly drugs are coming to New Zealand on small fishing vessels and yachts. None of these facts are new, but what are we doing to combat the problem? The short answer is ‘policing’ – surveillance, apprehension,  conviction. Is drug production ceasing or decreasing as a result? Are fewer people’s lives being ruined? The answer, as we know, is No. The crime approach is not working, so surely it is time to at least investigate making drug policy a health issue.

I was prompted to search for an article I’d written in my weekly column Heather Roy’s Diary in 2011 following the release of the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (War on Drugs). It’s recommendations focused on taking a health approach to drug use. Sadly nothing much has changed since the report was published, but its findings are every bit as relevant today. So, in order to shine some light again on this topic, I’m posting my archived article below.

Heather Roy’s Diary, first published 10 June 2011

This week a moral fiscal failure hit the headlines, with the global war on drugs being labelled “a costly failure” by the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Global Commission has no official status although it is a club that includes some very impressive people.

Anyone observing Mexico recently will be aware of the danger of the government losing control of law and order to violent drug lords. Profits from the drug trade are so great that drug gangs can and do field private armies that outgun local police, requiring army support to tackle the narcotic barons. Anyone who doubts the severity of the Mexican drug war needs only to look at the numbers. Over 39,000 people were killed between 2006 – 2011. To put this in context over 10 times as many people have been killed in the Mexican drug war in that time as were killed in the Northern Island conflict over 40 years.

Tales of the cruelty of the drug cartels are common and they wield enormous power. The desire for the huge profits made in the drug trade worldwide undermines whole governments. One example is Panama which President Bush Senior invaded in 1989 because the Panamanian leader, Manuel Noriega, and much of his government were heavily involved in the cocaine trade. Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was the embodiment of the all-powerful drug cartel. Forbes estimated him to be the seventh richest man in the world.

The casualties of drug wars are examples of what the Global Commission calls ‘collateral damage’. Like other wars the war on drugs has unexpected consequences and damages unintended victims.

Among the illustrious members of the Commission is Paul Volcker, an economist who has been Chairman of the US Reserve Bank and is widely credited with driving inflation out of the American economy. Volcker is well aware that the cost of illegal drugs in the US is declining and availability is rising. He knows that the considerable investment in “the war on drugs” has been totally ineffective.

Even if attempts to suppress the drug trade were having some success then the result would be to drive up the price, giving the drug desperadoes an incentive to take greater risks.

This is what the Global Commission report had to say:

“The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world … Vast expenditure on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. Apparent victories in eliminating one source of trafficking organisation are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers. Repressive efforts directed at consumers impede public health measures to reduce HIV/AIDS, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of drug use. Government expenditures on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace more cost-effective and evidence-based investment in demand and harm reduction”

The Global Commission does not advocate a free for all on hard drugs but rather medicalisation of the problem. Only a small proportion of the money spent on the drug war is spent on drug rehabilitation although it is the only possible way to reduce demand for drugs.

The report advocates the end of criminalisation, marginalisation and stigmatisation of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others. It suggests models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime as well as providing health and treatment services for those in need. It recommends investment in activities that both prevent young people taking drugs and preventing those who do from developing more serious problems. Most importantly it calls for breaking the taboo on debate and reform.

New Zealand is not Mexico, Panama or Colombia, but the same principles apply to the way in which we deal with drugs from party pills to cannabis, from pseudoephedrine containing substances to ‘P’. The banning of BZP party pills has merely seen the emergence of new variants with different active substances. Getting tough on ‘P’ by banning cold and flu remedy over-the-counter sales hasn’t reduced the growth in demand for ‘P’. It has denied effective symptomatic relief for hundreds of thousands of law abiding citizens. It is time to have a real debate about how to develop effective policy of psychotropic (mind altering) substances, including alcohol.

In April 2011 the NZ Law Commission released a report “Controlling and Regulation Drugs” – a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. It recommends a full scale review of drug classifications to determine controls and penalties and assessing a drug’s risk of harm; taking steps toward legalizing cannabis for medicinal use; cutting criminal charges against low-level drug offenders and introducing new regulations that aim to reduce the production of legal highs.

Unfortunately this is mainly tinkering with the problem. It is not nearly as insightful as the Global Commission report, nor as ambitious of outcome. President Obama has already indicated that the recommendations are a bridge too far for his government and it will be the same in New Zealand. Why? Because politicians are more worried about votes than reducing drug dependency. It’s time we got over that irrational hurdle.