Putting the P into stupid
Fri 23 Oct 2009 by David Grimmond.

The government’s recent decision to restrict sales of pseudoephedrine cold and flu medicines is the type of pseudo-policy that the recent Labour government was adept at.   It is not a welcome development by National.   Essentially you offer a simplistic response to a complex problem, ensure that the costs of the pseudo-solution are spread thinly (i.e. mildly irritate many people rather than infuriate any identifiable group), wring your hands about how awful the problem is, and finally accuse anyone complaining about the efficacy of the shonky policy of not caring.

It is nice that John Key says that he cares about the problems related to the abuse of methamphetamines; it would be nicer still that he focused on finding solutions rather than creating another class of victims – legitimate users of cold and congestion remedies.

Others have complained about this being another step towards the creation of a nanny state.   I personally feel that governments have a role in being our nanny.   What I object to are nannies that make a show of being concerned but are really more interested in their own comfort or reputation than the welfare of the children they are minding.   

Will restricting legitimate access to pseudoephedrine actually reduce the supply of feedstock into P labs?   Only if pharmacies are a prime source of this feedstock.   Given the price I have had to pay for cold remedies at pharmacies they do not seem to me to be a very cost effective source.   Also requirements for purchasers to provide photo ID, although not a perfect control, must have limited the quantity available from this source.   It seems far more likely that most ingredients are sourced in bulk from overseas.  This makes the border control component of the policy suite a far more promising approach than domestic sales restrictions.

Even so, it is not likely that one will ever eradicate substance abuse.   This is because substance abuse is at heart a mental health issue.   Yes some drugs have graver side-effects and others are more or less addictive in nature, but this is not greatly different from "legitimate" drugs such as alcohol, tobacco, or solvents.   Restricting access to one form of drug does not remove substance abuse, it at best changes the type of substance abused.   The key problems with taking a criminal approach to this mental health problem are that it drives people with substance abuse problems underground, it creates a business opportunity for criminal organisations and it drives up the cost to society from the problem.   Is it time for us to take a more mature approach and decriminalise our approach to dealing with drugs?

As many might attest, the costs to society from legitimate drugs like alcohol are not trivial, but they are less pernicious than those associated with illegal drugs or the costs that developed during periods of prohibition.   For example, bar owners do not make a habit of booby trapping their cellars or murdering rivals.

Legalising drugs is not the same as promoting drugs.   It does not even mean that we necessarily condone or consider drug use to be socially acceptable.   It simply provides a more open and cost effective way of dealing with a problem inherent in all societies.   There are also many other weapons in the arsenal for addressing anti-social activities: restricting advertising, restricting sales outlets, education programmes, imposing labelling requirements such as health warnings, and so on.

More importantly one can substantially reduce the cost ton on - or light-drug users of the societal costs associated with drugs.   To begin with, taking the criminal element out of drug supply will reduce policing requirements or allow a reorientation to other problems like theft or white-collar crimes.   If what are now criminal organisations really have acumen for chemical production it may allow them to expand in a legitimate way.   If not, decriminalisation will remove an income source from society’s less pleasant parasites.

Secondly legalising drugs would allow governments to impose excise taxes on drugs.   This is unlikely to be an effective deterrent against drug use or abuse, but it at least means that the people who impose the problem on society are forced to actively contribute to paying for the problems they cause for others.

Finally a shift from a criminal approach to drugs would allow a clearer focus on the mental health problems that underpin drug addiction and substance abuse.

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