I’ve been thinking about the budget. Its economic vacuousness: borrowing and crossing fingers for strong growth, while keeping tax cuts for the rich. The bare-faced cheek of counting the asset sales in its projections and passing Kiwisaver cuts without getting a mandate. But also, the cuts to vital public services without a more imaginative and sensible solution: drug reform.
The Law Commission proved in its report earlier this year that all the money the government sinks on the ‘war on drugs’ each year is more or less wasted. And the amount poured into this blackhole is mind-boggling.
There’s the policing cost:
“In a report prepared for the New Zealand Police in 2008, economists Business and Economic Research (BERL) estimated that the cost of enforcing the law against illegal drugs amounted to a total of $303 million in 2005/06. Enforcement activity targeting illegal stimulants was estimated to account for 48 per cent of that sum and 257,140 of the 598,000 policing hours dedicated to illicit drug enforcement. Activities targeting cannabis comprised another 38 per cent, or $116.2 million of the total budget, and accounted for 333,684 policing hours.”
600,000 police hours is equivalent to nearly 300 cops employed full-time on drugs. Remember that next time they’re too busy to attend a burglary.
There’s also the cost of imprisoning people and other sentences. There are about 1,000 people imprisoned for drugs offences, at $100,000 per head. That’s $100 million a year to lock them up.Bill English calls prison a “moral and fiscal failure”, well stopping locking so many people up for drugs crimes would be a good first step in addressing it.
Then there’s another 4,000 on other sentences, at the cost of many more millions.
Add to that the cost of all the court cases, 25,000 charges a year.
Not to mention the lost tax take from sending such a large industry underground.
All up, the ALCP reckons that marijuana prohibition alone costs half a billion dollars. That may be on the high side but gives you an idea of the scale of money being wasted on trying, and failing, to stop people consuming drugs.
All of this money is spent for virtually no effect on drug consumption. The Law Commission report makes that clear, as does the fact that 400,000 New Zealanders are regular consumers of cannabis.
What the ‘war on drugs’ does do is force drug users into close association with the criminal underworld and make it harder to get medical treatment – both of which lead to more crime problems.
It’s not just direct fiscal costs that can be reduced from focusing on drugs as a health problem, not a criminal one:
“for every $1 spent on addiction treatment, there is a $4 to $7 reduction in the cost associated with drug-related crimes, and that for some non-residential programmes, total savings can exceed costs by a ratio of 12:1”
What many people don’t realise is that governments spending fortunes hopelessly trying to fight drugs is a recent invention. Until the 1940s, you could legally buy heroin in this country. Since the international ‘war on drugs’ began, it has shown no signs off success and each failure has been met with more funding, with the same results. The UN, which pushed countries into tougher and tougher drug laws at the US’s bidding last century, now admits: “global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world”
In my dream world, the Prime Minister would listen to his Law Commission report on drugs and change the law as the Commission suggests: remove the focus on prosecuting and punishing drug users and focus instead on productive areas – treating addiction as a medical problem and focusing on harm reduction.
And, on a very much related note, he would listen to the report he commissioned from his science adviser that concluded we need to start investing more in young children, rather than wasting it trying to scare young offenders straight with silly boot camps.
Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen with this Prime Minister, who launched his silly ‘War on P’ and seems determined to just keep pouring taxpayer money down the drain.