Putting the P into stupid

The government’s recent decision to restrict sales ofpseudoephedrine cold and flu medicines is the type of pseudo-policy that therecent Labour government was adept at.   It is not a welcome development byNational.   Essentially you offer a simplistic response to a complex problem,ensure that the costs of the pseudo-solution are spread thinly (ie mildlyirritate many people rather than infuriate any identifiable group), wring yourhands about how awful the problem is, and finally accuse anyone complainingabout the efficacy of the shonky policy of not caring.  

It is nice that John Key says that he cares about theproblems related to the abuse of methamphetamines; it would be nicer still thathe 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 towardsthe creation of a nanny state.   I personally feel that governments have a rolein being our nanny.   What I object to are nannies that make a show of beingconcerned but are really more interested in their own comfort or reputation thanthe welfare of the children they are minding.   

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

Even so, it is not likely that one will ever eradicatesubstance abuse.   This is because substance abuse is at heart a mental healthissue.   Yes some drugs have graver side-effects and others are more or lessaddictive in nature, but this is not greatly different from "legitimate" drugssuch as alcohol, tobacco, or solvents.   Restricting access to one form of drugdoes not remove substance abuse, it at best changes the type of substanceabused.   The key problems with taking a criminal approach to this mental healthproblem are that it drives people with substance abuse problems underground, itcreates a business opportunity for criminal organisations and it drives up thecost to society from the problem.   Is it time for us to take a more matureapproach and decriminalise our approach to dealing with drugs?

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

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

More importantly one can substantially reduce the cost tonon- or light-drug users of the societal costs associated with drugs.   To beginwith, taking the criminal element out of drug supply will reduce policingrequirements or allow a reorientation to other problems like theft orwhite-collar crimes.   If what are now criminal organisations really have acumenfor chemical production it may allow them to expand in a legitimate way.   Ifnot, decriminalisation will remove an income source from society’s lesspleasant parasites.

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

Finally a shift from a criminal approach to drugs wouldallow a clearer focus on the mental health problems that underpin drugaddiction and substance abuse.  

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