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Act leader Don Brash wants to decriminalise cannabis. On TVNZ’s Q+A programme this week he said:
"Thousands of New Zealanders use cannabis on a fairly regular basis, 6,000 are prosecuted every year, and a $100 million of tax payers’ money is spent to police this law. The Law Commission says (prohibition) isn’t working and the Global Commission on Drug Policy says it isn’t working”.
Brash understated it. Around 400,000 Kiwis smoke cannabis every year, 100,000 nearly every day. The number of prosecutions for cannabis offences is rising and in 2008, there were 9,500 convictions. Enforcement and social costs have gone up accordingly. In 2001, the black market for cannabis in New Zealand was estimated at $190 million; in 2006 the social costs, which includes the cost of police, the courts and Corrections to enforce cannabis laws, were estimated at $430 million. This is a massive waste of money.
Decriminalisation in Portugal
Brash’s willingness to face this issue is rare among politicians. Most MPs ignore the research and continue to support the failed war on drugs. Portugal is one of the few countries where common sense has prevailed. In 2001, the Portuguese decriminalised all drugs including heroin and methamphetamine. Instead of punishing users, the new laws pushed them into treatment.
As a result, Portugal now has the lowest rates of marijuana use in the European Union. Hard drug use declined and the number of people getting into treatment doubled. At the same time there’s also been a fall in levels of petty crime associated with addicts stealing to buy drugs, and a drop in HIV among IV drug users. The results have been truly remarkable – decriminalisation works.
The economics of decriminalisation
There are a number of studies which suggest that the regulated decriminalisation of drugs also has major benefits for taxpayers, victims of crime, the safety of local communities and the criminal justice system. In 2009 a British study found that if drugs were decriminalised there, a legalised, regulated market could save Britain around £14 billion a year.
A US study came to a similar conclusion. Harvard University economist Dr Jeffrey Miron found that decriminalising cannabis would save the government $7.7 billion. If it were regulated and taxed as well, the revenue could be as much as $6.2 billion a year - making a net economic gain of about $14 billion a year. Dr Miron’s paper, The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition, was endorsed by over 500 economists.
The money is waiting
These studies suggest that the financial gain from regulating the sale of cannabis is roughly twice what is spent on enforcement. So if enforcing cannabis laws in New Zealand costs between $200 and $430 million (which isn’t entirely clear from the available data), this would be the minimum saving to the taxpayer. If it was regulated and taxed, the net benefit would be $400 to $860 million.
If National was also brave enough to implement the Law Commission’s recommendation to raise levies on alcohol, that would inject another $350 million into the coffers. In other words, there’s nearly $1 billion dollars waiting in the wings for any government with the courage to adopt evidenced-based solutions to alcohol and drug policy.
Who needs the money?
The addiction sector is grossly under funded. Roger Brooking argues in 'Flying Blind' that 80% of crime occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs affecting over 80,000 offenders; altogether, crime costs New Zealand over $12 billion a year. But Government provides only $120 million to the treatment sector enabling only 30,000 people a year to attend.
So another couple of hundred million from the deregulation of cannabis would help. So would additional levies on alcohol. The increased funding could even be used to address the ‘drivers of crime’ and provide half-way houses for ex-prisoners needing support in the community. Brooking argues that the lack of housing and support currently available to ex-prisoners is a major factor contributing to relapse to drug and alcohol abuse.
In other words - the money is readily available. It’s just that most politicians are so wrapped up in their punitive strait-jackets, they’re too afraid to use evidence- based policy to grab it. Instead the money goes to criminal gangs engaged in drug dealing – and the corporate gangs in the liquor industry.