Comment: What can the UK learn from New Zealand’s radical new drugs bill?
Only recently, news began to emerge of a 'ground-breaking' new approach to drugs in New Zealand – a legal framework based on the crucial principle that more control over drugs is better, safer and indeed more desirable than less control.
That is why the government in New Zealand is introducing the psychoactive substances bill, which, for the first time, will grant the government in New Zealand the legal authority to regulate so called 'party pills' and legal highs.
According to this bill, regulation will take various forms in a bid to make these drugs safer. Manufacturers will now be able to apply for a license and must demonstrate that these drugs pose a low health risk and are therefore safe enough to enter the commercial market. As well as adhering to various health and safety controls, those selling the drugs are now required to ensure that these substances are not available to minors, can only be sold in specific outlets and that marketing restrictions are enforced.
This legislation marks a clear break from the all too common presumption that making drugs illegal deter drug dealers and those who consume them. Possibly one of the biggest lies purported by our own policy architects here in Britain (and indeed, those the world over) is the idea that illegality with regards to the consumption of recreational substances is a deterrent – those in support of this position champion a dangerous disregard for the evidence, and have only inflamed the social decay all too often associated with drug use, empowering criminal gangs and leaving the British tax payer to foot an enormous annual bill of £16 billion and growing (this is in comparison to the costs of hosting the Olympic Games 2012, which totalled approximately £8.92 billion). The psychoactive substances bill was introduced to remedy in part the chronic shortfalls characteristic of the drug prohibition model.
For example, the British Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 confers to the Home Office the power to test and review any recreational substance and, if deemed to be "harmful", made illegal accordingly. The practical issue with this Act and it's Kiwi equivalent (the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975) is that the black market is able to tweak only slightly the chemical compounds of an existing drug and therefore exempt it from any current list of banned substances, and it seems to be doing this, as well as creating new synthetic derivatives, faster than the government is able to legislate. It is therefore important not to confuse prescription drugs with 'legal highs', as a legal high drug has been produced without regulation by criminal enterprise, but is yet to be made illegal by the Home Office.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the blanket ban approach is the huge emphasis placed on criminal penalties on those who supply or possess drugs. By introducing sanctions to prevent legitimate sale and distribution, the black market is able to operate an ultimate monopoly on these substances, selling them to minors adulterated with other chemicals that make them cheaper to produce and more addictive when consumed (making substances more addictive is an effective way of ensuring your return and a perfect way of providing your drug dealer with a reliable flow of income). Prohobition has undoubtedly compounded the issues of drugs and harm, serving to enrich those who benefit at the expense of society.
The central focus of the prisons system as a deterrent has also proven disastrous to all countries that pursue harsh laws against drug users. Incarceration is having a hugely detrimental effect, with a World Health Organisation report stating that "people with substance dependence are among the most marginalised in society and are in need of treatment and care. All the evidence shows that to incarcerate offenders for drug use and dependence is not an effective prevention or treatment strategy". Most individuals suffering from drug dependency who have been incarcerated frequently reoffend upon release.
The correlation between punitive drug laws and increased levels of drug consumption are all too clear, and the United States of America, Mexico, Russia and even Britain are perfect examples of this. This is in contrast to countries like Portugal, who, after decriminalising drug use and placing greater emphasis on harm reduction instead of imprisonment, have been hugely successful in stemming the rise of drugs, including HIV/Aids from injecting drug use and youth addiction. Norway too has recently announced plans to decriminalise smoking heroin in an attempt to reduce the health care costs related to Aids transmission and overdose from intravenous injection, as it is a much safer method of consumption.
The psychoactive substances bill in New Zealand will allow manufacturers to legitimately sell their products through a framework of regulation, mitigating the harms posed by psychoactive substances and in the process diverting money away from the black market as individuals turn to safer products they can trust without the risk of serious injury or death.
So, is this legislation a step in the right direction? Yes. Is New Zealand leading by example? Almost.
Any effort to regulate drugs should be driven mainly by the desire to control and regulate the most harmful and profitable of them – not those which pose minimal risk. It is, in the end, the most addictive of substances that are harming the fabric of society and proving the most profitable to organised crime. The psychoactive substances bill will do nothing to bring Class A drugs into the fold of state control – regulating the least harmful of substances will only have a marginal effect, but it's a good start nonetheless.
It is also apparent that policy makers in New Zealand are yet to perfect the art of objective, evidential and scientific drug policy making, given that marijuana, itself a low-risk drug, will remain illegal with users facing a fine of up to $500 or a three month prison sentence (New Zealand is the 9th highest consumer of marijuana in the world). However, the Kiwi government could be forgiven for this, given that any attempt to legalise marijuana would inevitably result in a showdown with the United Nations – an organisation that, despite claiming to uphold the values of human rights and the rule of law, has on numerous occasions made it very clear that any demand by the people to decriminalise drugs should be suppressed and usurped at every turn.
But that's not the only problem this bill faces. The very definition of what constitutes a 'psychoactive' substance can be divisive, given that caffeine also possesses properties that can alter the mind.
Furthermore, if only synthetic drugs that pose a low risk of harm are to be approved for distribution on the market, only a very small fraction of the legal highs market will actually be regulated, with the worst of these still being circulated illegally without any form of control. After all, legal highs are particularly notorious for the harm that they cause.
None of this is to say that we should not applaud the latest efforts by the government of New Zealand. This bill is, without a doubt, the first in what will be a series of attempts to really address the root cause of drug abuse: the black market. And it also demonstrates courage within the political class of New Zealand to tackle the issue, although the same cannot be said for our own here in Britain.
But as a country facing a war with drugs on an increasing scale of diminishing returns, we should and must do better.
Kya Suleyman is president of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy's Canterbury chapter.
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