I’m sure ACT leader Don Brash now regrets telling supporters that cannabis control costs too much and we should look at decriminalising the drug. The result has been a publicly divided ACT party yet again.
He probably also regrets not mentioning the Law Commission’s recent review of the Misuse of Drugs Act when he made his law and order speech. He could have talked about the cautioning scheme it recommends, instead of referring to it the next day when he was scrabbling in defence. The scheme would save a big chunk of money and reduce offending, without decriminalising cannabis.
He also wouldn’t have had to mention the D word, which has put jitters up the spine of party members who don’t want to appear soft on drugs, and think $100 million a year spent prosecuting cannabis offenders is a fine use of taxpayers’ money.
The Law Commission agrees with Dr Brash that spending so much on small-time users is wasteful, but it hasn’t recommended decriminalisation. What it has suggested is a mandatory system of warnings and diversion.
Cannabis is a class-C drug, so offenders would receive cautions and be given information about the legal and health consequences of their drug use the first two times they are caught. On the third offence, they would be referred for a drug assessment and, if they refused to attend or offended a fourth time, they would be prosecuted.
Offenders caught with more serious class-A or B drugs could be referred for a drug assessment immediately, depending on the seriousness of the offence and their drug problem.
Because the system is mandatory, it would apply to everyone. This is much fairer than the present situation where police can decide whether to charge. The browner or poorer you are, the less likely you are to benefit from their discretionary powers.
The Law Commission has recommended this system mainly because it works. It achieves nearly everything our “tough on drugs” stance has failed to achieve for the last 35 years under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
In Australia, for example, diversion has been official policy in all states and territories since 1999. Cannabis has not been decriminalised, and the law has remained extremely tough on traffickers and offenders who refuse treatment.
But the scheme has significantly reduced demands on the criminal justice system (6000 police hours saved each year in New South Wales alone) and saved a heap of money by reducing the costs of police, the courts, hospitalisation and prison.
Directing people who use drugs towards health interventions, instead of court or jail, has dropped reoffending rates by as much as 69 per cent in some places, and has been shown to reduce drug use and improve the physical and mental health of offenders.
It works because diversion into treatment provides an opportunity to address the underlying cause of the offender’s drug use. This is much more likely to end happily than giving a teenager a criminal record or sending them to prison to hang out with violent offenders.
Drug use is primarily a health issue and not a criminal one (good news for the half of New Zealanders under 65 who admit having smoked cannabis). But because it would not be decriminalised, prosecution would remain an option where appropriate.
As we look at replacing our outdated drug laws, it would make sense to seriously consider the diversion model. It has, after all, been suggested by the finest legal minds in the country. Its successes in Australia, and in many other places, shows we don’t have anything to be scared of taking health-focused and smarter approach.
Dr Brash’s comments may well have hurt his party, but he has done the country a service by encouraging debate.
It’s a discussion we need to have because something needs to change. For the past 35 years, we have been deluding ourselves that punishing people who use drugs without offering them help will somehow stop their drug use. The truth is that approach hasn’t made a blind bit of difference.
via : The Dominion Post
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