A new United Kingdom government study on the relationship between harsh punishments and recreational drug use underlines how wrong-headed New Zealand parliamentarians were earlier this year to abandon their brave experiment to establish a regulated market for approved synthetic "highs".

In a study of the drug laws of 11 countries, New Zealand included, the report concludes that punitive regimes like those in Britain and New Zealand have no impact on drug use. As Liberal Democrat Minister of State for Crime Prevention Norman Baker pointed out, "banging people up and increasing sentences does not stop drug use".

Suppressed for six months, says Mr Baker, because it was embarrassing to his Tory coalition partners, the report demolishes 40 years of what he refers to as "lazy assumptions" that "if you have harsher penalties it will reduce drug use".

The Home Office researchers don't beat around the bush. "We did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country's enforcement against drug possession and levels of drug use in that country.

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"The Czech Republic and Portugal have similar approaches to possession, where possession of small amounts of any drug does not lead to criminal proceedings, but while levels of drug use in Portugal appear to be relatively low ... cannabis use in the Czech Republic are among the highest in Europe."

In Sweden, which has one of the toughest approaches, there was "relatively low levels of use, but not markedly lower than countries with different approaches".

It noted that while drug use increased in Portugal following decriminalisation in 2001, from 2007 "use of most drugs has since fallen to below 2001 levels". It added that "one of the clearest changes in Portugal since 2001 has been a considerable improvement in the indicators of health outcomes for drug users". Also, the proportion of drug-related offenders in the prison system fell from 44 per cent in 1999 to 21 per cent in 2008.

None of this is new. You only have to sniff the air in party areas of any New Zealand town to know the ban on cannabis, added into a 1927 law aimed at Chinese opium smokers who, it was feared, used opium to seduce white maidens, has not worked.

In 2011, the Law Commission's review of the Misuse of Drugs Act noted that 400,000 Kiwis broke the cannabis law every year. Many regularly. It said the police spent 598,000 hours fighting the war on drugs at an estimated cost of more than $100 million annually. In 2009, personal possession and use offences made up 69 per cent of the 25,000 drug offences recorded by the police. Another report records that 16 per cent of the prison population are inside for drug-related crimes.

No doubt drug abuse can cause harm, as does smoking and drinking alcohol to excess. But as the UK study underlines, criminalising users does not deter. It just costs the state a huge amount in extra policing and court costs. It also quotes University of Essex research estimating a criminal record could result in a 19 per cent reduction in average earnings for those convicted.

In July last year, our parliamentarians, in a brief moment of common sense, acknowledged the war was lost and voted 119-1 to create a regulated market for approved synthetic recreational drugs.

Admittedly, it was just a first step. It sidestepped the much larger existing underground recreational drugs market. But at least it acknowledged that with the exploding trade in synthetic "cannabis" and other such psychoactive drugs, a new approach was needed.

But in May this year, with the market yet to be established, the parliamentarians lost their nerve. A few well-publicised "bad trips" and the Government rushed through a bill banning the "low-risk" highs that had been allowed to remain on sale temporarily until the new system was in place. Also banned was any animal testing under the new regime, throwing the future of the new system into further doubt.

What they did, in effect, was drive the synthetic high industry underground to join cannabis and the other more dangerous drugs. Yet as the latest UK report underlines, criminalising it won't remove it from the scene. What would is decriminalising cannabis, which has been used for thousands of years and is known to be safe. Certainly safer than the experimental synthetic drugs.

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