Paul Thomas: National gives a win to scaremongers, placard wavers ... and drug dealers

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Drug dealers will be the main beneficiaries of the decision to ban these substances. Photo / Chris Loufte
Drug dealers will be the main beneficiaries of the decision to ban these substances. Photo / Chris Loufte

The National Government is leaving nothing to chance in its bid to be re-elected. Sensing the opportunity to secure the support of a small but influential sector of the community, National executed a screeching u-turn on legal highs and locked in the drug dealer vote.

Drug dealers will be the main beneficiaries of the decision to ban these substances. At a stroke, competitors are put out of business and a new black market is created. It's a funny old world in which a supposedly pro-business, pro-law and order government shuts down legitimate enterprises and hands the underworld a lucrative monopoly.

As an American drug policy specialist told Campbell Live, the surest way of eliminating legal highs would be to legalise marijuana. Instead, the ban will add these synthetic substances to your friendly neighbourhood drug dealer's product range, thereby guaranteeing their continued availability.

But this has nothing to do with logic or good policy. This is a triumph for scaremongers and placard wavers and those who appeal to emotion rather than intelligence. It's lowest common denominator election year politics as usual.

This is the same National Government that watered down or ignored the Law Commission's 2010 recommendations on minimum pricing and advertising of alcohol, socially, medically and fiscally by far the most harmful recreational drug.

Only last week Justice Minister Judith Collins was insisting that minimum pricing would simply hit moderate drinkers and there was no "compelling" evidence to show it was effective.

I suppose it depends what you call compelling. A 2012 study by The Lancet, perhaps the world's most authoritative medical journal, concluded that "price increases and set minimum price are both estimated to have a much greater effect on heavier than on lighter drinkers, with only modest or small extra financial cost to lighter drinkers".

We shouldn't forget that National was chasing Labour on the synthetic drugs issue. Labour leader David Cunliffe is so anti these substances he doesn't even want them tested on rats. We've been wondering what Cunliffe stands for and now we know: the right of laboratory rats not to be treated like laboratory rats.

Whenever prohibitionism rears its head, we see the same old delusions at work.

The first is that you can legislate morality. Prostitution is known as the world's oldest profession for a reason, yet this week Hunters Corner Town Centre Society chairman Pat Taylor claimed that a shop selling legal highs was encouraging prostitution.

A year ago Taylor complained about "obnoxious transvestites". Two years ago Hunters Corner residents complained of being made prisoners in their own homes by prostitutes. In 2005 the Herald ran a feature on the "mean streets" of Hunters Corner; it was mostly about prostitutes. For as long as I can remember, Hunters Corner and prostitution have gone together like Las Vegas and gambling.

There's the conviction that the law is a deterrent. It is for the majority, but the majority don't take drugs, legal or otherwise. The drinking age law is widely flouted. I can't help wondering how many parents who nodded their approval of National's u-turn are aware that their underage children are using fake IDs to get into pubs and bars.

I hope the assumption that kids will stop using these substances once they're illegal is well-founded, but the evidence isn't encouraging. For every youngster who decides it was fun while it lasted but it's all over now, there will be others who take the view that a legal high is a contradiction in terms anyway.

Then there's the mysteriously durable notion that if we pass enough laws and ban everything that's dangerous or undesirable or in any way offensive to wowsers of every stripe, we could transform New Zealand into the sort of safe, happy, pristine, white-picket-fence society we see in TV commercials and Disney Channel sit-coms.

But those places are make-believe. In the real world, people have flaws and lack self-control and shit happens.

Last Tuesday was Workers Memorial Day, an international day of remembrance for people killed at work. Last year, 51 Kiwis died while doing their jobs, 11 of them in the forestry industry, which also had 180 serious injuries.

As Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly pointed out, in late 2012 the Government took a step back from forestry regulation. One grim year later, it accepts there's a problem but is refusing to amend regulations to align New Zealand's safety settings with those of Australia and Canada.

Perhaps that's because forest owners tend to vote National and forestry workers don't. Perhaps this is what Edmund Burke foresaw more than 200 years ago when he wrote, "A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world."

- NZ Herald

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