NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

Why criminalising drug use doesn’t work

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

Denial is an idea people easily associate with drug use and addiction. After all, it’s often part of the problem for people who are addicted to alcohol and other drugs.

But increasingly it appears that the general population is also in denial about the fact that criminalising drug use doesn’t work.

Last week I attended the New Zealand Drug Foundation’s Drug Policy Symposium “Through the Maze” in Wellington. The symposium was dominated by those increasingly rare things when it comes to public debates about drug use (especially in election year): FACTS.

In general, laws are really useful things and few would argue with their values being a guide as to what behaviours we are prepared to tolerate, or not, as a society. They also serve to keep people safe, and protect property.

But drug laws are a bit different. Most people believe drugs are harmful (they are) and that prohibition discourages use and keeps people safe (it doesn’t).

The denial and misunderstanding is best summed up by our Prime Minister’s position on the legalisation of cannabis, . He was quoted last week as saying:

“The fact that these drugs are still regarded as illegal tells you that as a society we have considered the harm to be great enough to make them illegal.”

So like most things these days this conversation comes down to a battle between what people feel is right, and what the actual facts are.

Reckons versus Reality.

What evidence (FACTS!) tells us is if you are really concerned about drug harm, concerned about young people’s drug use, and concerned about the availability of drugs – then legalisation and regulation provides more protection than prohibition.

It feels counter-intuitive and wrong, (hence the reckons) because we have grown up under the “War on Drugs” rhetoric: The idea that the drugs themselves are evil. That we need to wipe the scourge of drugs and dealers from our streets to make our children safe.

There’s only one problem: It hasn’t worked, and it never will.

Consider for a moment how freely available cannabis is in this country. My bet is you know someone who smokes it, and if you do, you could probably choose to purchase some for your personal use. Is making it legal to use, and tightly regulating it’s manufacture and supply really going to make it more available?

There is one even more important reason for us to review our drug laws in New Zealand. If you accept our Prime Ministers logic, that drugs are bad and illegal because they’re bad, then it’s also true that drug users are criminals, and are bad because they’re criminals.

This stigma not only stops people getting help but, for many, the legal issues and associated stigma is actually the most harmful thing that happens to them as a consequence of their drug use.

So before you consider whether you think we should change our drug laws, also consider this:

Do you think everyone you know who has used drugs (including maybe even yourself) should be considered a criminal? Do you think anyone who has ever used drugs should be in prison and have criminal records?

And do you really believe that punishing people who are in pain is humane?

(If you want to see what well researched, humane and sensible Drug Law reform could look like, then you should also take a look at the New Zealand Drug Foundation’s “Model Drug Law” Policy. You can download it here.

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