“Halting the spread of drug abuse in America is like carrying water in a sieve” — U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1981)

by Geoffrey Churchman

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick says the “natural progression” of the new approach would be decriminalising the use and possession of all drugs.

According to this article on the Stuff site, several organisations including the NZ Drug Foundation, the Helen Clark Foundation, the New Zealand Medical Association, Auckland and Wellington city missions, the Mental Health Foundation, and Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa (The Māori Law Society) have sent an open letter to PM Jacinda calling for The Misuse of Drugs Act of 1975 to be repealed and replaced.

This follows the anouncement of the move by Oregon State in America last month to decriminalize the use and possession of all drugs.

The present law in NZ has three classes of illegal drugs based on the level of risk of harm: class A includes the likes of methamphetamine and heroin; class C includes marijuana.

Unlike the referendum on legalising marijuana last year, decrimialisation does not mean legalisation, but removal of the crime of possession for consumption; there would still be penalities for trafficking.

The article quotes NZ Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm as saying, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re morally opposed to drugs or you have a slightly different take on things, we’re actually not doing much about our drug issues.” The foundation’s policy calls for “a health-based approach” with drug use still considered criminal, but no penalties at the lower end of offences.

Back in in America the early 1980s, following the big increase in drug abuse and a surge in feuding among drug dealers, particularly in Florida, the Reagan administration declared war on drugs. But nearly 40 years later, it’s a war that has been an abject failure. Today massive amounts of drugs, particularly cocaine and the relatively recent and dangerous fentanyl are smuggled into the US by land, sea and air. Border control and DEA agents only manage to catch a small proportion of it. The flow of drugs north from central America is matched by a big flow of cash and guns smuggled south from the US. You only need to watch the Netflix Narcos series or the documentaries on National Geographic to see what happens, and it ain’t pretty.

Returning to Ronald Reagan, in 1981 he said: “I’ve had people talk to me about increased efforts to head off the export into the United States of drugs from neighboring nations. With borders like ours, that, as the main method of halting the drug problem in America, is virtually impossible.

“It is my firm belief, that the answer to the drug problem comes through winning over the users to the point that we take the customers away from the drugs, not take the drugs, necessarily — try that, of course — you don’t let up on that. But it’s far more effective if you take the customers away than if you try to take the drugs away from those who want to be customers.”

That’s had limited effectiveness, too.

The small US Libertarian Party stated in its policies last year: “The War on Drugs is ineffective at limiting access to dangerous drugs and, instead, empowers dangerous gangs that make incredible fortunes on the black market.

“The War on Drugs has imprisoned millions of non-violent people. This is unfair to these people and also uses up resources that would be better spent prosecuting and imprisoning people who are violent.

“The War on Drugs is largely responsible for the militarization of police forces in America. It has pitted police against citizens and this is unfair to both. Police need to be able to focus on protecting the American public from violent offenders and fraud.

“Lastly, Libertarians believe that it is immoral for the government to dictate which substances a person is permitted to consume, whether it is alcohol, tobacco, herbal remedies, saturated fat, marijuana, etc. These decisions belong to individual people, not the government.

“Because of all of these things, Libertarians advocate ending the War on Drugs.”

The present proposals in Oregon and in NZ have this thinking.

But would it result in a big jump in usage? There would likely be some increase, but methamphetamine (in particular) is already widely used, and cheaper drugs from the dealers may mean less crime committed by users to pay for them. The practice of ‘cutting’ (mixing dubious fillers into what is sold) also causes a lot a harm and may reduce.

Despite all the misgivings that naturally arise about them, on balance modest reforms at least should be tried.