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Anniversary of the War on Drugs - a young ACT statement

Today marks 100 years since America began waging a war on drugs. This war cannot be won; the effects of prohibition have long pointed this out. In fact, young ACT believes drug prohibition causes more harm than the precise drugs it aims to protect us from. So why should New Zealand remain embroiled in a policy that has inflicted so much harm with so little pay-off? It shouldn’t. The best way to win the war on drugs is to end it; by legalising all substances otherwise controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act (1975).

Be warned, contemplating such radical reform is not for the faint of heart. Unfortunately sound debate on the matter is rare. Assumptions are common, emotion, ideology and rhetoric prevail, and evidence is often overlooked. It is easy to cower behind the false security of the status quo and cling to our ancient biases, but it is noble to consider that perhaps our approach has been a gigantic failure.

Although Nixon’s officials have admitted that the real purpose of the war on drugs was to disenfranchise black people and anti-war leftists, let’s assume the goal of drug prohibition in New Zealand is to reduce drug use. Prohibition in New Zealand is based off the false assumption that making a substance illegal will deter people from consuming it. The reality is that drug consumption will occur regardless of legality, and the illegal status does little to reduce use rates. According to the New Zealand Drug Foundation, before they turn 21 years old, 80% of New Zealanders will have tried illegally-obtained cannabis at least once. If New Zealand could convict 100% of the people who break drug laws, the vast majority of the population would have a drug conviction.

What if perhaps, we decided that video games had the potential to be detrimental to one’s health and well-being. Much like consuming cannabis, most people will play video games before they turn 21, but banning them would be an absurd proposition; and would cause a raging black market in which there would be no age restrictions, quality control, or conflict resolution; similar to that of drugs. The majority of people would still play video games despite its new illegal status, and those convicted of playing video games would be inhibited by their criminal record for the rest of their lives. Anyone would agree that prohibiting video games would cause more harm than video games do, yet we continue to flush money into that precise policy despite a century of evidence of its failure.

It is estimated that the New Zealand government spends $300 million on cannabis prohibition alone. Drug prohibition all together, is estimated to cost tax-payers around $1.8 billion a year. The social costs could be even higher. A person who is convicted of a drug crime most likely won’t fit the stereotype assigned to them by angry politicians. I imagine anyone from hard-working labourers to elected officials have taken illicit substances or perhaps still do. Most people who consume drugs are probably like you - perfectly capable of making positive contributions to society. A person who is convicted of a drug crime will obtain a criminal record which will inhibit their ability to obtain employment potentially for the rest of their lives. If they cannot be employed, they have two main options: state welfare, or income-generating crime. Neither of which is an ideal outcome. Convicts who resort to crime to generate income are likely to be convicted again, and fall into a cycle of being in and out of the justice system for their whole lives. This was not an effect of their drug consumption, this was an effect of drug prohibition. And tax payers are funding it.

That is not to belittle the potential dangers of drug consumption, though. Those should not be ignored. Jurisdictions around the world are experimenting with new approaches to drug policy, and have found that drug-legalisation has little impact on consumption rates. In fact in some countries, consumption rates decrease. From this we can confidently predict that legalisation won’t result in a population of drug-addicted-zombies like Bob McCoskrie would have you believe. Many of the life-threatening dangers of drug consumption wouldn’t exist if drugs were legal. Prohibition means that drug traffickers are looking for the easiest way to smuggle drugs into the country, reducing their mass is a way of doing that. So potency and concentration increase, causing the chance of lethal overdose to exponentially rise. (This is what caused the circulation of crack in America.) Prohibition means that consumers cannot be certain that what they are ingesting is what they paid for. 25i-NBOMe for example (a hallucinogen with a high overdose potential) is often sold as LSD (a hallucinogen with very low overdose potential). Ecstasy pills are often laced with bath salts and other harmful chemicals that make the risk of harm so much higher. If drugs could be legally supplied, there would be guaranteed purity, and accurate dosage, minimising the risk of accidental poisoning. In a legal market, age restrictions could be put in place to reduce minors’ access to drugs. People would be more educated about how drugs affect the brain and body, and what they can do to minimise the adverse effects. Addiction could be better treated, and those who will consume drugs regardless of the law, would be able to do so in the safest possible way.

New Zealanders should object to the very premise of prohibition - that the government can decide better than you what you should do in your own home with your own body, and punish you if you make your own mind up. For a century we have clung to a policy that was literally designed to cause harm from its conception, that yields little more than injustice and adversity and achieves none of its supposed goals. The prohibition of drugs should have long ago been abandoned alongside the many failures of our notorious 20th century. This year New Zealanders will have the opportunity to push our country in the right direction. During our general election we will get the chance to vote on whether cannabis should be legal for recreational use, and I hope at the very least I have made you consider voting yes.

Ali Gammeter Vice President of Young ACT

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