Treating drug use as a health issue and investing more money in treatment and harm reduction will more than pay for itself, a new report says.
Prepared by Sense Partners economist Shamubeel Eaqub, a cost benefit analysis released today showed the benefits of a package of drug law reform measures would well outweigh the costs.
The analysis looked at three drug policy reform proposals of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, and found that decriminalisation of drugs and the introduction of a strictly regulated market for cannabis are fiscally positive.
The proposals are to invest an extra $150 million into addiction treatment, drug education and harm reduction interventions, to replace the Misuse of Drugs Act with a health-based drug law, and to regulate the legal sale of cannabis.
"The failure to address New Zealand's drug problem is down to the fact that for too long we've taken a punitive approach to drugs," said the foundation's executive director, Ross Bell.
"We've proved ourselves ill-equipped to deal with public health emergencies when it comes to drugs."
The report showed the Government could collect up to $240m tax revenue from the legal regulation of cannabis, with an additional $6m to $13m in savings to the justice sector.
It also showed at least $225m net social benefit could be gained from investing in drug treatment and education services.
Meanwhile, switching to a health-based approach to drugs could bring about $34m to $83m net social benefit.
Bell said 80 per cent of Government spending on drug issues went to the justice sector.
"Our expectation is that the Government will put their money where their mouth is and commit to doubling the money that goes into treating this."
He said regulating cannabis sale would take the power out of the hands of those selling it illegally.
"Let's take it out of the hands of the criminal black market and put controls in place so we can address the issues of youth use and all the other harms that come with cannabis."
Eaqub also spoke to the report, saying "who doesn't know somebody who's smoked pot?"
"You take a step back and you realise that even the people who police it have moved on . . . the police are not locking up people for use and possession like they used to.
"We don't have the resources and funds available to treat the people we're not locking up."
The gains that could come from investing in support services are "really very, very significant".
The tax revenue to be gained from legalising cannabis would allow the Government to be "very ambitious about the kinds of programmes we want to have".
Eaqub said all three proposals needed to be enacted together.
"It's absolutely obvious that we have to do all of those three things together. We can't pick one," he said.
NZ Needle Exchange Programme executive director Kathryn Leafe said they welcomed the report.
She said harm reduction was an integral part of tackling drug issues in New Zealand.
"The war on drugs not only is a failed war but it is also a war on those people who use drugs."
Bell said there appeared to be growing consensus among politicians to treat drug use as a health issue.
"We now have an economic case that we can take to the Finance Minister.
"We're going to have to have a debate around what will the regulations look like . . . we get to learn from people who have gone before us with Canada and the US."
He said taking a health approach was the "morally right thing to do".
"I think with this report we just wanted to add strength to an already strong argument."
Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick supported the report today, saying New Zealand had a "historic opportunity to minimise the harm caused by drugs in our communities".
"We need sensible drug regulation in New Zealand that minimises harm and supports people rather than sending them to jail," she said.
"Criminalising drug users is not reducing drug consumption. In fact, 16.5 per cent of people who use drugs are too scared to access help in fear of the law or police.
"If we genuinely want to reduce drug harm, providing services to the 50,000 Kiwis that already desperately want help for their drug and alcohol issues would be a good starting point.
"I'm calling on colleagues across the House to live up to their rhetoric and get on board with a pragmatic and sensible way forward".