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Ganging up on gangs

My column in this week’s NBR argues that if New Zealand were serious about wanting to do away with gangs, the government would be looking at alternatives to drug prohibition rather than adding up dubious stats on the fiscal costs of gang members to justify crackdowns on gangs.

First, the dubious stats part. Rolling up 22 years’ worth of costs into one big number just isn’t on. Annual figures allow reasonable comparisons; annual per-capita figures even more so. The only purpose great big numbers serve is a political one. They cannot be contextualised reasonably. Quick question: to what is $700 million over 22 years closest: aggregate government expenditure on pens; aggregate government expenditure on computer monitors and keyboards; or, the total cost of air travel provided to former MPs over that period? You don’t know and I don’t know either. The number is without anchor. Annual figures we can think about in terms of other fixed things in the budget.

If you look at the welfare assistance component, the total of $525m is $132,000 per known gang member (p.10). Over 22 years, so that’s $6000 per capita per year. If you add in some of the related costs, it goes up to about $8200 per gang member per year to get the $714m figure. But those aren’t incremental costs of being in a gang, they’re total costs of gang members. And, as I mention in the article, the cohorts who go into gangs are different from the average and would have different outcomes than the average even if they didn’t join a gang.

I argue that experts know drug prohibition doesn’t work. Some evidence on this: Locally, the NZ Drug Foundation’s Wellington Declaration of a few years ago argued strongly against the prosecution of those possessing drugs except after treatment refusal. That’s a medicalisation/decriminalisation approach. Their group was very broad-based. The Drug Foundation’s February conference noted the slow and seismic shift away from “punitive approaches which have proven costly and largely ineffective”. The New Zealand Law Commission’s survey, which was heavily politically constrained in scope, nevertheless raised substantial objection to hard forms of prohibition. At paragraph 59, they noted a preference for responses proportionate to harms and diversion of users into treatment rather than jail.

Moving away from New Zealand, Mark Kleiman’s synthesis of the existing literature argues for a graduated system, with prohibition maintained for the worst drugs but easier regimes for safer drugs. The California Medical Association’s endorsement of medical marijuana stated:

In addition, CMA does not as a matter of policy encourage the use of marijuana and discourages smoking. But, ultimately, its members believe that the most effective way to protect the public health is to tightly control, track and regulate marijuana and to comprehensively research and educate the public on its health impacts, not through ineffective prohibition.

Among economists, we have Mark Thornton’s 1995 survey that found a majority of economists supported either legalisation or decriminalisation, though his survey was not sufficiently granular to allow different responses for riskier and less risky drugs. The IGM panel of economists, with responses weighted by expert confidence, had 79% agreeing or strongly agreeing that Netherlands’ style restrictions on soft drugs combined with moderate taxes on them would have lower social costs than prohibition.

When the Law Commission went out to consult on drug policy, they had a pretty firm steer on that there was no political alternative to prohibition. The government either likes prohibition for its own sake, or views itself as being constrained by international convention, or constrained by voters. The international convention bit is getting very strained where Canada’s legalising marijuana, Australia’s moving toward medical marijuana, and more US states are legalising marijuana. It is implausible that New Zealand could not do it, were there demand.

Were it up to me, we’d legalise cannabis immediately for sale to those 18 and older, with excise on it to maintain selling price to consumers at about the pre-prohibition price, and with provision for home growing similar to provisions for home brewing and home distillation of alcohol. We’d reinstate the regime around legal highs so that basic safety testing were again possible, and have enough licensed outlets that we wouldn’t get John Campbell specials on the scary-looking queues outside a few outlets. We’d bring the safest drugs of each category under the legal highs framework, along with excise to maintain price to consumers at pre-legalisation levels so you wouldn’t unduly goose demand. And after that had run for a while, we’d see whether folks had shifted into the safer products from the worse ones that had continued to be illegal. And along side all of it would be ample provisions of support services for users who ran into difficulty or who needed help quitting, and tons of monitoring to see what was happening with uptake and experienced harms. Prohibition does far more harm than good. But which potential non-prohibition regime is really best is less clear. Not knowing which non-prohibition regime is best is a poor excuse for not moving away from prohibition.

About Eric Crampton (88 Articles)
I'm Head of Research with the New Zealand Initiative.

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